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Adrienne Kennedy’s new play, ‘Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side,’ is utterly unique

Caroline Clay as Ella in “Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side.” (McCarter Theatre)
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The lyrical mosaic of “Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side” denotes a play-builder in her prime. That the puzzle master in question is 89 years young makes the dramatic results all the more remarkable.

Playwright Adrienne Kennedy has been the subject over the past few months of an intriguing online festival, curated by Round House Theatre and McCarter Theatre Center. It is culminating with the world premiere of “Etta and Ella,” a 30-minute work performed with mesmeric focus by Caroline Clay.

Online festival highlights power of Adrienne Kennedy

The play, a knotty tale of the lifelong literary rivalry between scrapping, scribbling sisters, is quintessential Kennedy: fragmentary yet coherent, blisteringly visceral yet enigmatically unique. When the lights go up on a Kennedy creation, you strap in for a gambol along a singular corniche. Her canon is at times interlocking; at any moment, you’re liable to bump into places or incidents from her other plays (and even from the works of other writers). These touchstones are summoned fleetingly in the streams of poetic consciousness that are Kennedy’s lovely hallmark.

One of the benefits of the online formatting of “Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side” — directed with crisp authority by Timothy Douglas — is that you can watch it more than once. “Etta and Ella” surrenders its mysteries only grudgingly: You’ll hear it in a different, perhaps even more rewarding way a second time through. I found an additional viewing helpful in unraveling relationships referenced in the monologue accorded to Ella, who discursively parcels out details of her and her sister’s psychic disintegration.

Seated at a table on a bare stage, Clay effects an amused professorial air as she recounts the events leading to a violent encounter on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, in a gully near the Hudson River. Don’t expect a police-procedural approach to this account; Kennedy is far more interested in vagaries of disintegration than in a clear delineation of a final act of madness. Is the act itself a delusion? Do Etta and Ella exist as separate beings? Is “Etta and Ella” in actuality a ghost story?

We learn snippets about Etta and Ella, once full of authorial promise and now, in early middle age, consigned to has-been status. A friend sees Etta in a bookstore, in her shabby daily costume — a “wrinkled old evening gown” and sneakers. A professor from City College, a member of a small arts society called the Vanishing Literary Club, gives Etta a room in his brownstone on West 89th Street. Etta and Ella get into a jealous row over ownership of certain stories from their past, at a public event. These fragments do not coalesce in any conventional biographical sense; we’re witness to the spilling out of circumstances, the way one might break open a piggy bank, and watch the coins scatter across a table.

A tragic dimension is suffused all through “Etta and Ella” — of loss of status, of bearings, of sanity. The play’s structure reflects this notion of unraveling: This is how one really does traverse the blurry, variegated chambers of memory. Personal recollection can’t be plotted on a map. Trying to assign it a logical route may be the real act of madness.

Clay is a wonderfully protean performer, as you know if you’ve seen her as a hard-bitten autoworker in Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew” at Studio Theatre or as the perceptive housekeeper in “The Little Foxes” on Broadway. Here, she’s an elegant bestower of Kennedy’s riches.

Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side, by Adrienne Kennedy. Directed by Timothy Douglas. $15 (or $60 for the complete four-play festival.) Through Feb. 28. roundhousetheatre.org and mccarter.org.

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