I sat watching Inis Nua’s production of the British play “Box Clever” at its Friday opening in Center City, and wondered if anyone in Britain or Ireland is writing plays with characters who talk to each other rather than to me. Make no mistake, there’s dialogue in “Box Clever.” But most of it begins at around Minute 70 of this 80-minute play, and only then does the script flicker with meaning and impact.
Much of the rest of the time we’re being told a story — narrative theater that has become commonplace with new Irish and British playwrights, or so it seems in the catalogue of plays produced by Inis Nua, devoted to staging theater from Ireland and Britain. In this case, the storyteller is a single mom of a 4-year-old girl. She and her daughter are in an untenable situation — one of three boyfriends the woman’s still stuck on (despite her denials) is in jail for abusing either her or her child. We don’t know which until about Minute 73.
Before that, we’re given a portrait of a stunningly needy and frail mother – I wouldn’t call her a low-life, but she pretty much does that herself with ramblings about boyfriends in jail (one boyfriend is the dad of her daughters), a mother she curses at every turn, a daughter she tries to properly shield but can’t, the 13 women and 10 children she lives with in a government refuge because the welfare system considers her own flat dangerous if the abusive boyfriend returns, the … it goes on.
And in Monsay Whitney’s play, it goes on too long without moving on. For much of “Box Clever” – a British phrase meaning cunningly outwitting someone – the woman’s ramblings seem out of context. That’s a nice way of writing that I felt lost during much of it and you probably will, too. It turns out that this dissolute storytelling, punctuated by scant lines of dialogue here and there, is about something far more important than its angry and unseemly storyteller suggests: The ways that desperate women, and especially single mothers, can be abused by a social system that might offer more recrimination than real help.
Getting to that point is as much of an uphill battle theatrically as the woman’s life in general. That’s no fault of two sure-footed actors: Ruby Wolf as the single mom and Rachel Brodeur as everyone else in the narrative. “Everyone else” amounts to maybe 15 characters, including the four-year-old daughter and the boyfriends. Whatever the faults of the play, it’s satisfying to witness these two women flawlessly working together in a largely unadorned playing space except for a floor that resembles a massive Chutes and Ladders game board. The audience sits along the two long sides.
Inis Nua’s artistic leader Tom Reing moves the women around nicely to fit the twists and turns of the narrative, although his direction sometimes has them speaking to one side of the audience, making it hard for the other side to follow. Or at least I found that to be true on the side where I sat. But then again, it wasn’t necessary to follow much of it until the end, when it was too late to make for a fulfilling evening.
“Box Clever,” produced by Inis Nua Theatre Company, runs through Feb. 24 at the Louis Bluver Theater at the Drake, on South Hicks Street. Hicks runs to the side of the Drake Apartments, on Spruce Street between 15th and 16th Streets.