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Off-Broadway Play Review—Sarah Ruhl’s “Becky Nurse of Salem”

Becky Nurse of Salem 
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Rebecca Taichman
Closes December 31, 2022
Mitzi Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY
Deirdre O'Connell (center) in Becky Nurse of Salem (photo: Kyle Froman)

With their opaque plots, absurdist situations and flowery language, Sarah Ruhl’s plays hint at significance but—with the glorious exception of her lone Broadway outing, the focused and superb In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play—rarely deliver. 
Her latest, Becky Nurse of Salem, begins tantalizingly by introducing its eponymous heroine, a descendant of an accused woman during the infamous 17th-century Salem witch trials. A tour guide at the local history museum, Becky is held in contempt by her boss Shelby for providing visitors with unauthorized, often crudely expressed versions of famous local events, like her observation that, despite what Arthur Miller wrote in his play The Crucible (which Ruhl uses as a crutch throughout), the accuser Abigail was only 11, not 17, when she was seduced (raped?) by John Proctor.
A mess at middle age, Becky is still mourning her daughter’s opioid overdose death and pops pain pills herself (as well as downing a lot of booze) while trying to care for teenage granddaughter Gail, whose new boyfriend took the hotel job that Becky was hoping to get; and, desperate for a new direction, she visits an actual witch who gives her potions to spice up her love life with a bartender named Bob, with whom she was involved way back in high school and whose own marriage is breaking up.
As written, Becky may not have true inner logic—another unfortunate Ruhl staple—but, like Marisa Tomei, Mary Louise Parker and Laura Benanti before her as offbeat Ruhl heroines, Deirdre O’Connell delivers an impressive display of sparkling comic energy and touching vulnerability, even putting across the clunky nightmares that Ruhl heavyhandedly uses to equates Becky’s travails with the deadly difficulties of her ancestor—replete with chants of “lock her up!” that not only end the first act but begin the second—that they nearly seem substantive and meaningful.
But Ruhl falters, as she often does, by confusing absurdism with absurdity. After setting up the strands of Becky’s problematic existence, Ruhl spins her wheels until simply tying up narrative loose ends with little dramatic or psychological coherence. Such leaden dramaturgy, which robs her heroine of real complexity, shows snippets of Becky’s various relationships and interactions without giving her an interesting character arc.
Rebecca Taichman’s diffuse staging doesn’t help the writing or characterizations cohere; Riccardo Hernandez’s fragmented set, Barbara Samuels’ astute lighting and Palmer Hefferan’s inventive sound design threaten to swallow up, rather than complement, Becky’s story. Good performers like Tina Benko, Thomas Jay Ryan, Candy Buckley and Bernard White get lost in the onstage flailing, and O’Connell is unable to provide a safe landing after an exceedingly bumpy ride.

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