July 20, 2024
John Patrick Shanley’s ‘Brooklyn Laundry’


David Zayas and Cecily Strong in 'Brooklyn Laundry.'

David Zayas and Cecily Strong in Brooklyn Laundry.
Photo: Jeremy Daniel

This season has provided us with a more-than-40-year survey of the work of John Patrick Shanley. At the Lortel last fall, Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott followed in the footsteps of so many drama students before them in his youthful, bruising Bronx romance Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, first performed in 1983. Then, skipping ahead 20 years into Shanley’s career, the Roundabout is about to open its production of his eternally produced Pulitzer- and Tony-winning soul-searcher Doubt. You might hope for a synthesis, or any sort of progression, to arrive two decades beyond that in his newest work, Brooklyn Laundry. If only any of it felt remotely new: The material here has been run through the wash enough times that the seams are tearing.

The premise, at least, is promising: Shanley is playing on his home court, writing a quirky outer-borough romance mixed with a family drama, about two broken souls finding a bit of comfort in each other. But the characters are so recognizably Shanley to the point where they’re tropes, not people. Fran (SNL’s Cecily Strong, in her second stage outing after Signs of Intelligent Life) walks into her Bushwick wash-and-fold with a light bag of clothes — she’s had a recent breakup — and falls into a conversation with the owner, Owen (David Zayas). She’s unlucky with men, a trait so often reiterated you struggle with the innately charming Strong’s casting, and has a friend at work who claims she keeps “manifesting” storm clouds over her life. Owen, on the other hand, is boundingly optimistic, despite the fact that his back was broken in a car accident. The money from that helped him build his little laundry empire. The two of them talk in canned bits of wisdom and half-baked aphorisms, observations not quite developed into insights. According to the playwright’s note, Shanley thought of the idea for Brooklyn Laundry after having his own wash lost by a service like this one, a fate that’s previously befallen Fran, and musing about what could possibly have happened to it. To which you want to say, “Well, light daydreaming isn’t quite enough to build a whole play around.”

Shanley himself may have known this, because as soon as Santo Loquasto’s set rotates to reveal the interior of a mobile home in a trailer park, Brooklyn Laundry suddenly shifts from too light to too heavy. We discover that Fran’s sister Trish (Florencia Lozano) lies in bed dying, her memory flashing back to card games and other memories of her youth with Fran and their other sister, Susie (Andrea Syglowski). Despite the tonal gear shift, the thing remains ever-obvious: Lozano has to make pronouncements along the lines of “it’s already made it to my brain,” while Strong putters around the oddly tilted floor around her. Then, with another turn of the set, we’re back to Fran and Owen on a date somewhere in Brooklyn, where both end up lightly dosed on mushrooms. That scene’s the best in the play, and it contains some glints of the charm Shanley can summon — with all her sketch training, Strong is great when she’s supposed to be zooted — but none of it meshes with what comes before or after. Soon, the set turns again to get us to Susie’s apartment for more melodrama. Then, finally, before I could say “please get me off the merry go round,” the set spins once more, and we arrive back at the cleaner’s with Fran and Owen.

A crucial flaw in the process may be that Shanley, here, has directed himself, and has no one trying to iron out the play’s many kinks. Playwrights directing themselves always risk giving into their worst instincts (see also The Portuguese Kid, another Shanley-on-Shanley), and here he’s only intensified his work’s own lopsidedness. Each member of his quartet of actors has ended up independently at sea, each going for a different affect. Lozano, stuck in bed, tries to accommodate by going way too big, whereas Syglowski (whom I’m giving a Purple Heart for doing this and Theresa Rebeck’s similarly under-excavated Dig), trying to pin down a character who just keeps spouting new exposition, comes off as erratic and confused. Zayas, an ever-reliable grounding force in dramas, brings weight and depth to Owen, but he can only do so much. Strong ends up both loud, when she knows she can play the comedy, and tentative, when Shanley’s writing leads her into an emotional left turn. Another voice in the room might have given each of them better guidance, though given the dialogue, I’m not sure if it would have been enough to make Brooklyn Laundry cohere. A sliver of grace, at least, is that Shanley himself seems to have lost interest in expanding and refining his ideas further. The play operates on only a 75-minute spin cycle. Though as with most of my experiences with washing machines, it feels like it takes longer.

Brooklyn Laundry is at New York City Center through April 14.


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