Chicago Theater Review: THE GIRL IN THE YELLOW DRESS (Next Theatre Company in Evanston)

Post image for Chicago Theater Review: THE GIRL IN THE YELLOW DRESS (Next Theatre Company in Evanston)

by Dan Zeff on February 16, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


The two-character romantic play typically follows a set pattern. A man and a woman have just met. They are very different in lifestyles and initially they don’t hit it off. But gradually they connect, and by the end of the story they are either in a happy-ever-after clinch or they ruefully separate. That’s the broad arc of The Girl in the Yellow Dress, an unsatisfactory play by South African dramatist Craig Higginson that attempts far more than it accomplishes at the Next Theatre.

The Girl in the Yellow Dress - Lifeline Theatre - Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

The play’s action is located in an upscale apartment in Paris (a beautiful set by Jacqueline and Richard Penrod). The apartment is occupied by Celia, a young Englishwoman obviously with no money problems, evidenced by a whole wardrobe of outfits she wears, ending with – you guessed it – a yellow dress (Marianna Czaszar designed the costumes). Celia earns a few extra francs and occupies her time giving English lessons. Enter Pierre, a young African from the Congo studying art at the Sorbonne university in Paris who wants to improve his acceptable but rough English so he can enhance his chances for success in an English-dominated world. So, boy meets girl – can romance be very far behind?

Higginson’s play runs 90 minutes without an intermission, long enough for the storyline to take a number of improbable, not to say ridiculous, turns. Celia is wary of Pierre at first – and then hostile – before suddenly taking the young man as a lover, a radical plot twist that left me wondering if I’d missed a short scene that made that narrative shift the least bit plausible. There are references to incest and kleptomania. Both characters lie about their earlier lives and there is even a foot fetish bit to unsettle the viewer.

The play also has ambitions for social relevance: Pierre announces that white people are often intolerant of black people, unfortunately true but scarcely a revelation; likewise, he tells us that a cultural gap exists between black Africa and white Europe – again, true but not a cutting edge observation.

Either way, that’s about as far as the play takes its topical significance.

The bursts of dialogue about race and culture temporarily distract the viewer from the absurdities of the romance. Celia turns out to be a far different woman than we meet at the beginning of the play: she’s a nice young lady but, man, does she ever need counseling to sort out her personal life. Pierre gets plenty of racial animosity off his chest and by the end of the play he at least can claim that his English has improved through Celia’s tutelage. But as far as the ascent and descent of their love affair, I didn’t believe a word of it. Plus, the play’s weaknesses cannot be masked by any directorial wizardry by Joanie Schultz.

The play is watchable because of the fine performances by Carrie Coon as Celia and Austin Talley as Pierre, both of whom master their accents (props to dialect coach Eve Breneman). Coon, a very hot young performer right now, plays her role with a sensitivity and intensity that indicates she understands and respects the motivations of her character, however improbable they may be. Talley has a strong stage presence and his explosions of anger at the racial divide are expressed with conviction and eloquence.

The most interesting element in the play is Celia’s explication of the various tenses and moods woven into English. I hadn’t realized what a subtle and complex mode of expression our language is, and I marvel that any foreigner can learn English accurately. But I suspect that’s not the chief message Higginson expects the audience to take from his play.

photos by Elissa Shortridge

The Girl in the Yellow Dress
Next Theatre Company in Evanston
ends on February 26, 2012
Next Theatre closed its doors in 2014

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

Leave a Comment