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Rinse, Don’t Just Repeat: “Brooklyn Laundry” reviewed

Romance versus realism – that’s the stated them in Brooklyn Laundry, John Patrick Shanley’s latest play to open at Manhattan Theatre Club’s New York City Center space. As many of his famed works have been, this is about two damaged souls finding each other. It’s not so much that they find love; it’s about how love trips them over each other. Realism? Bumpy fantasy might actually be closer to what’s afoot here.

Laundry is the third Shanley work to enjoy a New York City production this season, following a Lucille Lortel Theatre revival of his early play, the Bronx romance Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, first performed in 1983, and an ongoing Roundabout Broadway revival of Doubt, his deep and trenchant Pulitzer- and Tony-winning triumph on the politics of faith. As the title gives away, with this new work, Shanley – who also acted as director of this production – steps out of his familiar Bronx neighborhood where the two aforementioned plays took place into less familiar territory – and I don’t just mean the Brooklyn neighborhood where this play takes place.

The two sad souls this time out are Fran (Cecily Strong, in her second New York stage work following The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life revival at The Shed) and Owen (David Zayas). She’s a Bushwick resident toting lots of baggage – much more so than the relatively light amount of clothing she brings into the local wash-and-fold owned by Owen. Yes, she’s smarting from a recent breakup, but she’s clearly bitter about more than that, as Shanley’s dialogue repeatedly makes clear.

Owen quickly appears to be the yin to her yang – sure, he’s had his lumps, but he’s able to recast a car accident that broke his back into the lucky break that helped him purchase several laundry franchises. In a manner not unreminiscent of the title character in Danny, Owen makes polite but continual plays for Fran, which eventually scores a win for him: Fran grudgingly agrees to a date with him after she returns to town from a trip about which she is rather cryptic.

This play would work well as a short or one-act; it actually seems like Laundry could wrap itself up after that, the glib Noo Yawk talk between two strangers perhaps resulting in the bashert. But Shanley, it turns out, has something different in mind for the show, and it’s case of more being less. Fran visits an ill sister, Trish (Florencia Lozano, excellent) and later gets unexpected news from a second one, Susie (Andrea Syglowski, soldiering mightily through a role that’s nothing but incredulous exposition), that cast her budding relationship with Owen in a new light.

Kind of. What’s frustrating about Laundry is not just the hairpin turns that Shanley’s plotting takes, but how much of it happens offstage, thereby feeling inauthentic. It deprives Fran, a character who should be an identifiable surrogate for many in the audience, of believability. (Some of the choices Shanley has her make are downright, inarguably, perplexingly stupid.) Shanley’s direction further underserves Strong, who is forced to pivot constantly between broad comedy, where she excels, and dark comedy, where neither director nor performer knows what balance to struck or how far too deep.

What isn’t frustrating, and works great, is the chemistry between Strong and Zayas, who are delightful together, particularly when the characters get to open up instead of running around in circles at odds with one another. We see this most clearly in a scene where the two, experimenting with mushrooms while at a rooftop restaurant (evocatively lit by Brian MacDevitt), emerge from the cocoons they use to hide away from the world, and it would seem to be the scene that Shanley himself sees most clearly; no other scene feels as wholly or completely developed. It should also be said that Strong is left to struggle a bit with Fran’s ever-changing impulses, Zayas puts forth a steadfast example of pride – first gutsy, and later wounded.

In other ways, however, Shanley the director delivers a seamless product. The scenes and their transitions are well-paced, and the staging looks terrific. Santo Loquasto has designed a revolving quartet of astonishingly lifelike sets, including Owen’s realistic laundromat, and several different home settings, created with attention to class detail. Suzy Benzinger’s costumes and John Gromada’s sound design also add to the play’s local color. This packaging makes the overall effort that much more of a shame: Not quite the fizzy romantic comedy or the bracingly realistic look at the difficulty in modern coupling Shanley may have intended, Brooklyn Laundry needed to clean up its act a bit more.

Brooklyn Laundry
City Center – Stage I
www.manhattantheatreclub.com