Review: At Northlight Theatre, Brooklyn Laundry Offers Biting Repartee and Emotional Nuance

Fran, a customer at Owen’s Brooklyn laundry, asks “Do you believe in God?” Owen replies “Why not?” In the first scene of John Patrick Shanley’s Brooklyn Laundry, the exchange sounds flippant. By the end, it underscores the play’s fundamental questions about what we need to believe to get through the day.

Directed by B.J. Jones, the rolling world premiere (which began at Manhattan Theatre Club) at Northlight Theatre almost creeps up on the viewer. Cassidy Slaughter-Mason as Fran presents herself as a world-weary kook and Mark Montgomery responds as a crusty borough guy, familiar territory for the author of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea and Moonstruck

Shanley’s repartee is biting. When Fran tells him “I’m suffering from reality,” Owen assures her, “You’ll feel better tomorrow.” “No I won’t,” she fires back. Starting with Owen’s business losing a sack of her laundry months earlier, Fran doesn’t have much reason for optimism. Her daily job involves “office shit” and she needs to leave town for something less than a vacation. 

Sandra Delgado and Cassidy Slaughter-Mason. Photo bv Michael Brosilow.

While Fran hides the true source of her anguish, Owen lays it all out there: Once a corporate guy, he was hit by a car and then let go by his employer. Thanks to an effective attorney, Owen received personal injury and wrongful termination settlements, enabling him to buy a laundry and kiss working for the Man goodbye forever. Significant back pain aside, he now owns three New York laundries. So, it’s not all bad. But there’s enough tough stuff in there to make him miserable. His fiancé dumped him because he couldn’t perform in bed due to his back injury. 

Abruptly, like so many moments in the play, he asks Fran to have dinner with him when she returns from her trip. That trip, it turns out, is to visit her critically ill sister Trish (Marika Mashburn) in a Pennsylvania trailer park. Their other sister Susie (Sandra Delgado) has taken Trish’s kids out for a while, leaving them to exchange some very grim gallows humor. Life has not been kind to this family. Somewhere in this scene, Fran starts to evolve from a malcontent full of zingers into a woman who can hear her sister’s realization that “you wake up to the limitations of people.” 

Back in Brooklyn, Owen and Fran pursue a relationship. The sparring continues—she is a kook, he is a crusty guy—but the patter-type dialogue gains emotional nuance. For some reason, the grill restaurant to which Owen takes Fran offers beef, fish and vegetables but no chicken. She wants chicken. He wants chicken too. They each want “something that’s not on the menu,” a detail that takes increasing significance as devastating events jostle them around. 

Cassidy Slaughter-Mason and Marika Mashburn. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

A few more one-liners demand repeating here, whether because they are wise or because they are funny or both. “I hate the things we have to say,” remarks Owen about being a man. “I hate the things we have to do,” responds Fran about being a woman. The audience broke into audible gasps of recognition. Discussing the guardianship of her two children, Trish tells Fran that their drug addict father “couldn’t get custody of a lamp.” Contemplating the future, Fran notes “everybody is going to be somebody’s ancestor.” 

Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s set towers over everything–rows and rows of bagged clothing on conveyers as high as the rafters. The sight impressed and slightly distracted me. Most scenes take place either at the dry cleaning counter or elsewhere—Trish’s trailer home, a restaurant, Susie’s living room. Each setting was basic but appropriate for the script, allowing us to focus fully on the people inhabiting these spaces. And then there was all that dry cleaning to stare at for the entire performance. Fortunately, Shanley’s play and a very worthy cast hold their own amid the garment bags, perhaps a comment on the mundane tasks that fill our transitory but potentially purposeful place in the universe. 

Brooklyn Laundry continues through May 12 at Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. Tickets are $49-89 (student discounts available) for performances on Tuesday through Sunday. Running time is 75 minutes with no intermission. 

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

Did you enjoy this post and our coverage of Chicago’s  arts scene? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation by PayPal. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!

Picture of the author
Susan Lieberman

Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant.