By: Iris Wiener
According to one of the characters in Jonathan Tolins’ cleverly insightful and brilliantly funny new play, The Forgotten Woman, lovers of opera face life head on. Tolins is clearly passionate about the art, which is obvious in the fact that Forgotten takes on the story of a gifted soprano on the verge of a major operatic career, as well as in the many beautifully written layers woven throughout the story that challenge his characters to take control of their own lives. His enthusiasm for opera and writing makes for an exciting and poignant piece that is sure to touch everyone in important ways.
The Forgotten Woman’saforementioned vocalist, Margaret Meier (Ashlie Atkinson), is nervous as her career is about to take off. When a handsome entertainment writer (Darren Goldstein) visits her hotel room, he forces Margaret to question her life and the choices she has made to become opera’s next big thing. Nothing is off the table: her less-than passionate marriage, her child, her ambition, her weight, and the price she must pay in a commonly misunderstood business. Ultimately, Margaret must come to terms with her insecurities and self-doubt if she hopes to succeed in having a career and a family.
Atkinson brings warmth, sass and honesty to a role that epitomizes the experience of any plus-size woman, not just those that are ardent about having a career that keeps them in the spotlight. She is equally stunning when she is playing Margaret’s heart-wrenching desperation and heart-warming confidence. The nuances encompassed in Atkinson’s questioning of what her character is doing with her life are profound and thoughtful, even when she is spewing profanity in moments of humor. Goldstein’s Steve could be at the center of his own play (perhaps The Forgotten Man?), as he ruminates on his career as an entertainment writer (as opposed to that of the critic), and what it means to be tasked with culling personal information from artists and creating intriguing stories from it. Goldstein’s performance is intelligent and savvy, muted in all of the right places while making heated moments electrifying. His natural instincts make it an important challenge for audiences to try to continue to appreciate Steve’s motives, despite some questionable choices. Supporting roles include that of manager Erick (Mark Junek), overbearing husband Rudolph (Robert Stanton), and bellhop Jordan (Justin Mark). Steve, Erick and Rudolph serve to move the plot, but are essentially there to help develop Margaret’s character while aiding in her splendid arc. Junek has a delightful stage presence, while Stanton is a bit hard to swallow as Margaret’s husband.
Tolins’ sensitivity and depth are effervescent in Forgotten. What could easily have become a tired love story about an unconventional couple with secrets in their closet is instead a smart and complex piece celebrating a woman’s courage to believe in herself and her career. The esteemed playwright behind the gem Buyer & Cellar once again proves insightful about the dumbed down moxie of the entertainment business (“saying something is like a movie is the highest praise!”) and people that dip their feet in different aspects of it are perfectly executed. Noah Himmelstein’s direction is crafty and distinctive, especially in Margaret’s growing affection for Steve, and in the closing moments of both acts in the play. Throughout a few scenes that are rife with niche monologue about opera, Himmelstein could easily have lost his audiences; however, he makes it interesting through guiding Junek’s delivery in an enticing fashion. Jess Goldstein’s costumes are stunning; in fact, Atkinson’s final gown of the evening is so superb that it contends with her performance, threatening to steal the show. Tim Mackabee’s hotel suite-set is brightly accented with royal blues and orange highlights, all nicely complemented by Atkinson’s auburn waves.
The Forgotten Woman applauds the woman that is forgotten (both metaphorically and literally) by a hypercritical, judgmental society, simultaneously refusing to forgo humor and hubris. It reminds audiences that it is okay to be creative without a monetary outcome, and that there are many ways in which to find meaning in life- not just through finding love. As astute as it is delightfully entertaining, this is one play that theatergoers won’t soon forget.