Albert Nobbs, the dutiful Dublin hotel waiter in "The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs," has a secret: He is really a woman, leading the life of a man to escape the inequities of 19th-century society.
I'm telling you nothing that playwright Simone Benmussa doesn't reveal in the opening minutes of this adaptation of a story by George Moore. In fact, the whole plot is pretty much laid out at the start by a taped narrator, which makes the ensuing 90 minutes if not exactly redundant, at least notably short on suspense.
Entirely too inert to qualify as drama, "The Singular Life," which is being given its local premiere by the New Arts Theatre, is more in the nature of an elegy for the dreams that flicker momentarily in the title character's heart. Born a bastard into a life of poverty, frightened of "rough men" and fearful of pregnancy, Nobbs (Hannah Weil) finds masquerading as a male the only way out. Besides, it allows "him" to earn a better living.
The one hint of conflict comes when he meets a house painter (Rosemary Walsh), who also pretends to be male by day but reverts to the female sex at night and enjoys the companionship of hearth, home and a "wife." Could Nobbs not strike up a similar arrangement? To that end, he courts the hotel cook (Alicia Wollerton) and then, repelled by her acquisitive nature, tries to forge a connection with a street tart (Sarah Pleydell Walton). Ultimately, Nobbs dies alone, as we were told he would at the outset.
Sexually equivocal as this may appear, "Singular Life" has nothing to do with transvestism or lesbianism. It is really about a painfully withdrawn creature struggling to survive in a virulently sexist society. But once you've said that, I fear you've said it all.
The staging by director Robert McNamara has a graveness that occasionally lends a poetic aura to the text. The male characters exist as tape-recorded voices, but a Greek chorus of four chambermaids moves formally through the proceedings, rearranging furniture and props. The solemn approach encourages the audience to more meditation than the thin script can sustain.
Weil is persuasive enough as the woebegone Nobbs, although one can't help think that after a life of disguise, the character would have developed a few more smarts. Walsh and Wollerton make the most of their brief scenes, and Margaret Didden is properly peremptory as the proprietor of the hotel, austerely suggested by John Antone's set. But it will take considerably deeper delving if this singular life is to strike us as more than just a passing curiosity.
The production runs through Jan. 18 in Pierce Hall at the All Souls Unitarian Church.
The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs. By Simone Benmussa. Directed by Robert McNamara. Set, John Antone; lighting, Chris Townsend; costumes, Ric Thomas Rice. With Hannah Weil, Alicia Wollerton, Rosemary Walsh, Margaret Didden, Sarah Pleydell Walton. At the New Arts Theatre through Jan. 18.