Step Up Productions at Athenaeum Theatre. By Joshua Rollins. Directed by Ilesa Duncan. With ensemble cast. 2hrs 10mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kevin Thomas
The set for Step Up Productions’ Darlin’, by Joshua Rollins, is a muted hotel room in the key of beige. The first thing you notice is this blank slate, made emptier when the manager, Smith (Todd Michael Kiech), walks its new resident Clem (Elizabeth Birnkrant) through its features in enthusiastic detail. Soft carpeting. Free cable. A painting on the wall. The suburban Clem wants the room because it’s not where she came from, and that’s all that matters. We know she has a husband and kids, and that she’s not talking about it. She takes the blank slate, pulls out a stack of cash, and turns it into a trash-ridden, disheveled den of not-giving-a-shit.
Darlin’ is built on a satisfying combination of boredom and denial. Trapped in a state of nothingness, Clem becomes involved with a cast of odd hotel workers, most importantly a young maid named Dee (Elizabeth Antonucci) with a severely abusive boyfriend at home. Supported by a skillful and funny cast, the play holds out on grabbing a discernable plot for a long time—and that’s a good thing. While Dee’s bruises are unsubtle, they key us in to the thousand smaller ways that male arrogance and aggression are omnipresent in Clem and Dee’s lives. When a man enters the room—even just the goofy stoner—the tension goes up a notch. For two women struggling with self-determination and power, it's instantly understandable why they begin to swing between fragility and rage under the constant pressure. The script is not sophisticated or surprising, but it dwells well in the space it lays out, and the mystery of Clem’s flight from her own life adds a second layer to her involvement in everyone else’s.
Ironically, Darlin’ struggles to grow beyond the hotel room. The plot can’t build properly because characters don’t intertwine; they just overlap. They’re separate stories that bump into one another but never affect meaningful outcomes—in some plays that’s the point, but it doesn’t feel like it in this one. Moreover, the longer the play continues, the more it falls back on disappointing cliches for motivation. The mysteries don’t reward our attention with new perspectives, and the drama has to happen offstage because, well, there’s only so much justification for everything to be in Clem’s room.
This is not to say there aren’t strong moments. Jake Carr’s stoner delivery boy is adorably charming, the confrontation between Clem and her husband (Bradford R. Lund) is a singular moment, and Dee experiences a darkly funny breakdown over a vacuum cleaner. But by the end, it’s clear that the play is grasping to bring all its pieces together. What we get is an ending, but not a conclusion.