Chicago Theater Review: NICE GIRL (Raven Theatre)

by Lawrence Bommer on January 31, 2018

in Theater-Chicago

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THE GIRL OF MY DREAMS

“No one will ever love you as much as I do — so shut up and stop looking for more.” A harsher hope-killing “reassurance” should not be imagined. That’s the curse/challenge facing Josephine Rosen, the 37-year-old anti-heroine in Melissa Ross’s ironically titled Nice Girl, a tender-headed character study.

This sweetly knowing, open-hearted 2015 script is gently embraced by Lauren Shouse’s equally tough-loving Chicago premiere at Raven Theatre. You can call it “hope-breaking” heartache, except there’s redemption by the end. It comes in one little word: “Go” (the context of which I dare not divulge).

The time is 1985, the place Boston, the job a secretary at an accounting firm. But the bedrock reality for middle-aged “Jo” (Lucy Carapetyan)? She’s still living at home with her meddlesome mother Francine (Lynne Baker). Occasionally, despite doubting her good looks, Jo gives herself a night out with workmate Sherry (Stella Martin), her high-spirited, foul-mouthed and sex-crazed best friend by default. A single-mother divorcee, Sherry acts like a disco bimbo but she’s also fiercely loyal and true blue (collar).

Bored and lonely, Jo regrets how she had to abandon a promising career at Radcliffe College to take care of her dying dad (never to go back). Now she’s trapped at home and convinced that no one, whether they deserve it or not, gets happiness. Feeling dead, Jo has done without so long she’s in danger of forgetting how to hope. A pretend invalid, Francine is clinging and controlling and, for Jo, her mother’s suffocating, passive-aggressive fear of being abandoned feels like a dispiriting mutation of protective love.

Until she meets a butcher named Danny (Benjamin Sprunger). Making her meatloaf, this likable palooka gently mocks her compassion for the origins of veal. Separated from an unsympathetic spouse, handsome Danny is a former classmate and Celtics fan who’s also learned how to “settle.” But he refuses to let Jo make herself miserable.

Plaguing Jo’s hopes for a future together, Danny has a past. It’s something that these awkward lovers must push past if Jo is ever going to break free by 40.

That’s the unpretentious and recognizable crisis at the very beating heart of Nice Girl. It could hardly be more fully felt or deeply delivered than by Shouse’s superb quartet. Contagiously hilarious, Martin’s randy but romantic party girl is a phenom of fun. In dour contrast, Baker makes Jo’s self-pitying mom a black hole of neediness who, remarkably enough, can catch on to her own games. Full of ineloquent ardor, Sprunger’s gentleman-caller becomes the perfect answer to most of Jo’s unasked questions.

Finally, there’s Carapetyan’s wonderfully faceted Jo, a homebody who the collective audience will want to adopt. Not since Marty, Paddy Chayevsky’s lovelorn butcher, has a character so completely conveyed the anguish of being “stuck.”

As always, the best, as in the most wrenching, plays are not about “win-lose” outcomes between good versus evil. They’re about “lose-lose” choices between one good opposite another — love versus loyalty, freedom fighting duty, the past against the future. That’s the passionate payoff that follows two hours of Nice Girl. It’s well worth the wait.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Nice Girl
Raven Theatre Company, 6157 N. Clark St. (at Granville)
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3
ends on March 11, 2018
for tickets, call 773.338.2177 or visit Raven Theatre

for more, visit Theatre in Chicago

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