“Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side,” part of the “Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration and Influence” festival on-going at Round House Theatre, had its world premier on Sunday. This is an elegant work.
Clay brings to life these fragments of two entwined lines with dignity and humor and fear.
Clocking in at only 37 minutes, it’s about two sisters and their bond over the years. There is a raw closeness and also a competition that frequently seems to have them at odds. Their bond informs their writing in many ways— including an eerie tendency to name their characters the same. The sisters are professors of Western literature and writing at separate schools, and there is a very subtle irony in having female Black professors teaching a mostly white and male canon.
Caroline Clay, who has graced Broadway in the Tony Award-winning productions of “The Little Foxes,” “Doubt,” and “The Royal Family,” shines in this one-woman show. She speaks in both sisters’ voices, as well as that of a friend of theirs, Harry. The two of them live in the same building. As she goes back and forth in her memory, she ranges from a young woman in a pink dress walking hand-in-hand with her sister to an old woman who got lost in her building and spent a night huddled, frightened on the stairs. Clay brings to life these fragments of two entwined lives with dignity, humor, and fear.
This is not a straight-arc show. The script is more a series of vignettes. The ending is abrupt. It wasn’t until Clay was nearly off the stage that I realized it was over. At times, I had some difficulty remembering which sister had said or done what, but that also seemed to harken back to that forceful bond between them.
Timothy Douglas directs Clay on the Round House stage, where she sits behind a table with papers and books in solitary splendor. Clay’s ability to convey each sister’s emotions with a raised eyebrow or a slight twist to the lips that this production works very well in a streaming setting. It feels intimate and elegiac at the same time. It is worth spending some time with this show.
Lighting is by Sherrice Mojgani, sound by Lindsay Jones, videography by Mind in Motion, and editing by Joshua Land, Mind in Motion. The finished product is so seamless it looks as though it was all done in one take.
Running Time: Approximately 37 minutes with no intermission.
“Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side” runs through February 28, 2021 (on demand and you may watch it [and all other festival plays reserved] at your convenience, at any time). Presented by Round House Theatre in association with McCarter Theatre Center. For more information, please click here.