“Lady Lay,” at 7 Stages through May 19, tells the story of Marianne, an office worker in a dreary job in West Berlin in the late 1980s whose life starts to be transformed when she hears the music of Bob Dylan for the first time. Although there are small parts for other players, including former 7 Stages Director Del Hamilton as Dylan — who visits Marianne in a fever dream — for the most part the play, a U.S. premiere by playwright Lydia Stryk, is carried by actress Stacy Melich. Her emotional directness and storytelling ability make for a compelling evening, in spite of some problems.
Although the action is set in Germany, the cast members don’t do accents, which seems a wise choice. Accents would be cumbersome, unwieldy reminders of Marianne’s foreignness, when what’s needed is a sense of familiarity, proximity and plain-spokenness, all of which Melich provides in abundance. More problematic is that the collection of hopeless cases who parade through Marianne’s unemployment office speak with Southern or New York accents and affectations.
Marianne herself wears jeans throughout the show. This makes sense in the second half, after she’s been transformed by music. But in the beginning, when she’s supposed to be constrained by the formalities and rules of a pointless, mindlessly bureaucratic government job, it makes little sense to see her at her desk in capri jeans and a tied-off oversized shirt.
But more than that, Melich doesn’t really convey a sense of European world-weariness. She’s defeated by drudgery, all right, but she reacts to the nonstop depressing stories of her unemployed clients by slouching in her chair or laying her head onto her desk. These exaggerated actions seem too American, too contemporary, too much at liberty for Marianne at that point in the story. She’s supposed to be constrained not just by the rules of the office but by her own formality and unimaginativeness.
The script also seems a little contrived in that it’s moderately hard to accept that a woman living in West Berlin in 1989 has never before heard the music of Dylan, an international musical superstar since the mid-1960s. Ultimately we can suspend our disbelief here, but even harder to accept is that Marianne can find so few people who understand her transformation, so few people to connect to.
We understand that she is meant to feel imprisoned and deadened by her job, but she seems absolutely, almost bizarrely isolated. Does she have no parents, other family, hometown or friends? We never see or hear anything about them. West Berlin in 1989 was not just some dreary, rule-ridden, unthinking city of inhibited office drones, but a thriving hive of Bohemian culture. Americans, after years under Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush, were more likely to look to Berlin for new ways of thinking and living than the other way around. The story would make far more sense set in the 1960s, when Dylan’s music was new, the situation in Berlin somewhat drearier and the situation in America more spirited.
Central to the story is the idea of Dylan’s words, voice and music. Though the cast does a nice job delivering some respectable cover versions, Dylan’s own voice is never heard, and that absence is felt. The set, like a gray prison yard that the audience peers into, works well, but there are too many things dropping. Marianne arrives at her office and a bundle of files falls from above with a thud onto her desk; Dylan albums and other props are lowered on strings; beds and shelves pop out from the walls. The effect is a bit noisy and cluttered, and creates a sort of busy, facetious atmosphere that doesn’t suit the subject matter.
Nevertheless, Melich manages to keep the focus sharp, and Stryck’s storytelling is lively, smart and personal. The play’s ultimate questions about the nature of freedom and personal transformation are serious and troubling ones.