Elderly matriarchs losing their physical and mental faculties seem to be all over New York City stages at the moment: There’s the mostly silent but ever-present wheelchair-bound Momo in Stephen Karam’s sensational Broadway drama The Humans; the assisted-living-bound Gram, a cheeky supporting character in Greg Pierce’s Her Requiem at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater; and, perhaps most prominently, there’s Dotty Shealy (played by Marjorie Johnson), the Alzheimer’s-stricken heroine of Colman Domingo’s beautifully unsettling Dot, now at Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre. A trend? Or perhaps a sign of a generation of playwrights moving into middle age and realizing with every passing holiday that their Baby Boomer parents aren’t as agile as they used to be?
In his third and most ambitious play to date, Domingo (perhaps best known as the actor in The Scottsboro Boys on stage, Fear of the Walking Dead and Selma on screen) tackles a frightening issue with a fearless mix of bone-dry humor and warp-speed emotional shifts. When a play opens with someone swilling watermelon vodka at 10 a.m.—that would be Shelly, Dotty’s daughter and default caretaker (the fabulous Sharon Washington, who starred in Domingo’s 2012 fairy-tale-tinged funeral comedy Wild With Happy) — you know you’re in for a bumpy ride.
As other family members — Shelly’s YouTube quasi-celebrity sister Averie (Libya V. Pugh) and her freelance music critic brother Donnie (Stephen Conrad Moore) — drop in for the annual “Christmas at the Shealys” celebration, it’s clear that Dotty’s declining memory is not the first thing on their minds. Averie, clad in a Beyoncé-circa-Destiny’s-Child dress and Manolo Blahnik boots, is focused on cooking pork chitlins, not to mention her upcoming audition for Celebrity Mud Fight. Donnie and his husband, Adam (Colin Hanlon), are on an ill-timed juice cleanse, which Donnie has unsurprisingly broken in the middle of the night. So what if Dotty thinks Adam is her long-deceased husband? There’s surely no harm in letting the two of them engage in an intricately choreographed dance fantasy for a few minutes.
Incidentally, Dot’s director is song-and-dance queen Susan Stroman, of The Producers fame, and that fancy-footwork-filled sequence is one of the production’s missteps; it simply looks awkward, rather than dreamy and magical. Another disappointment: the character of the family’s old friend and former neighbor, Jackie (Finnerty Steeves), who’s pretty much your stereotypical 40-year-old sad-sack New York City single girl. Okay, so she’s hooking up with a married man — no judgment! — but she’s really been carrying a torch for Donnie, her old high school sweetheart, for most of her life? Give a modern woman a little more credit.
Give Domingo credit, though, for using his approachable, unique voice to call attention to an often-underrepresented issue. In one particularly chilling scene, Dotty tricks the family — well, Donnie, the only one brave enough to take the bait — into stepping into her shoes, so to speak. He’s forced to put on noise-emitting headphones and blurry goggles, tape some of his fingers together, dump marbles into his shoes — and then take instructions from his screaming family. “It’s the virtual dementia experience,” explains her sweet Kazakh caretaker Fidel (Michael Rosen). Oh yes. We understand. Some people understand all too well. B