By Dorothy Parker; Created by Jennifer Engstrom; Directed by Darren Lee Cole
Produced by Michael Shannon and SoHo Playhouse
Off Off Broadway, Solo Show
Runs through 11.9.14
Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street
by Adrienne Urbanski on 10.19.14
Jennifer Engstrom in Excuse My Dust.
BOTTOM LINE: This series of vignettes taken from literary legend Dorothy Parker's writing offers comedic and dramatic moments performed with intensity by Jennifer Engstrom.
Given how much of literary legend Dorothy Parker’s writing centers around bars, and includes such coy reflections on excessive drinking as: “I like to have a martini/Two at the very most/After three I'm under the table,/after four I'm under my host,” it seems fitting that a show paying tribute to her would take place in a bar. The retro-themed décor in the downstairs bar of the SoHo Playhouse, where performer Jennifer Engstrom channels Parker, makes it convincingly seem like the sort of place where Parker would drown her sorrows in too many martinis.
Engstrom compiled the material for the show, taking both pieces Parker wrote about herself and those she wrote about fictional characters, all of whom bare some resemblance to Parker. So while not every scene within the show is necessarily Parker herself, they are at least characters that are representative of her and her state of mind.
Among the snippets of writing pieced together here is “The Garter,” a story in which a woman breaks her garter belt and is stuck alone at a party holding up her stocking. In her depressive state, this small mishap becomes representative of her broken heart and her general disillusionment in life. In another a character seats herself at the bar and tells her male counterpart to watch out because she gets dramatic when she drinks. After throwing back a few scotches, she breaks into tears and laments that perhaps she should stop wearing mascara as she is too sad. In another piece, Parker humorously complains about the men who ask her to dance and clumsily perform when all she wants to do is sit in a corner and reflect on her sorrows.
While I was familiar with Parker’s work before the performance, I was used to the caricature tied to her name: a jaded, gravel-voiced woman known for her sardonic wit and penchant for drinking. However, the pieces strung together here show a woman who wanted to be sentimental and emotional, rather than putting her feelings quickly aside as she felt society wanted. Her black humor was her way of coping with the pain of the emotions triggered by such situations as a male suitor not calling when he promised to, a scene that brings to mind the sort of obsessive overthinking of text messaging that now seems to be a malady of dating in our technologically advanced age.
By developing this show Engstrom has created a strong vehicle to showcase her obvious acting talent. Engstrom captures Parker’s dry wit completely, giving justice to her black humor. She successfully is able to capture the characters’/Parker’s quick mercurial mood as her sarcastic humor quickly switches over to moments of emotional vulnerability. Engstrom’s skill and intensity as a performer enables her to fill up a stage on her own and improvise when faced with such challenges as an audience member accidentally stealing her seat. While the bar is a small room to stage a show in, Engstrom wisely makes use of the entire room, rather than just the stage. This is something I was grateful for as I could not see the stage from where I was seated. The number of audience members attending the performance, however, was much too large and some seated themselves on the floor, blocking Engstrom’s path. Perhaps a larger New York venue should be in Engstrom’s future, as she clearly has no trouble attracting an audience.
In previous productions of Excuse My Dust, Engstrom gave a brief interlude lamenting on Parker’s life. Using this as an introduction or an interlude would help give some context to this work. While the show ended on a strong note, I felt a little lost in the beginning (perhaps because Engstrom was seated where I could not see her). Overall, Engstrom is a strong performer and her “portfolio” helps show that Parker’s dry wit and dark soul still have relevance today. Her moments of humorous despair over a neglectful suitor seem far funnier and more relatable than any of the tales of dating woe shown by such modern day characters as Carrie Bradshaw or Hannah Horvath.
(Excuse My Dust plays at SoHo Playhouse's Huron Club, 15 Vandam Street, through November 6th, 2014. Performances are Fridays, Saturday, and Sunday at 7:30PM. Tickets are $15.50 and are available at www.sohoplayhouse.com or by calling 212.691.1555.)