Fresh Hell: in Conni Massing’s new play an unusual case of female bonding. A review.

Sydney Williams and Kate Newby in Fresh Hell, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

By Liz Nicholls,

You’ll never guess who Dorothy Parker ran into the other day. On a stage. In Edmonton.  

Of all the historical figures that you might reasonably expect the New York wit, poet, satirist to conjure at a moment of extremity, Joan of Arc is pretty much off the chart of official possibilities. But in the particular limbo imagined by Conni Massing’s new play Fresh Hell, premiering at Shadow Theatre, Dorothy somehow summons Joan, the inspirational heroine of the Hundred Years War, to Manhattan 1923 from a battlefield in 1429.

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Both are in that hitherto unexplored liminal space where 20th century Central Park and the 15th century French countryside meet. And for Tracy Carroll’s production, designer Daniel vanHeyst has figured out how to create a shimmering timeless moonlit space with a glinting silvery New York skyline cutout and the kind of ethereal foliage you might dream if you dreamed in pewter hues and were constructing a mental tapestry.  

Both women are hovering between life and death, on a time-out in their respective bios. Joan arrives onstage, dramatically, with a banner and an enemy arrow in one shoulder. Dorothy has just slit her wrists. Which makes them blood sisters, I guess. “I admit you were on my mind,” says Dorothy. “Stop praying; you’re making me nervous.”

Even in the world of unlikely encounters of which theatre is inordinately fond — where nuns and gangsters get stuck in elevators together, tykes and octogenarians meet on park benches, and Samuel Beckett and Shakespeare hang out — Fresh Hell is boldly out there. And Massing, a witty writer with an ear tuned to Parker-type wisecracks, has to work, possibly a bit too hard, to be playful about an improbability that’s so obvious, a contrast set forth in such primary strokes.  

In the terms of Fresh Hell (a title spun from Parker’s famously all-purpose “what fresh hell is this?”), why on earth would Joan of Arc be a muse for Dorothy Parker? Joan is on a short break from her divinely appointed job freeing France from the English. Dorothy is suicidal because she’s up against a deadline for a magazine piece on saints and martyrs. Even in New York publishing circles this seems an extreme reaction to deadline pressure, but hey, we don’t judge. Or she’s wearied by her own “obligation to be facetious”? Or “I can’t think of a reason not to”?

Joan, needless to say, is not impressed. “You are taking your own life?” she says, shocked at this egregious violation of the Church party line on mortal sin. “Who better?” is Dorothy’s rejoinder. 

Fresh Hell aims to be both funny and touching about this exotic and wildly unexpected case of female bonding. And it often is. But I do wonder if Carroll’s production might have been better off to give itself over more fully to the comic possibilities of the mis-match. The play belongs, after all, to Dorothy Parker and her case of “the glums”; and the show might unspool that fun a bit more en route to its ending.

Kate Newby as Dorothy Parker in Fresh Hell, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

In a performance that captures the sense of a quick wit getting frayed at the edges, Kate Newby has a Dorothy voice with a patina of Upper West Side cocktails and smoke. She nails a world-weariness that is a combination of existential ennui, puzzlement, and a certain self-mockery (in 1923, after all, she has experience as a reviewer). And one of the delights of Newby’s performance is the way Dorothy, even in melancholy self-lacerating mode, seems to be unstudiedly quick-witted.   

Sydney Williams, a newcomer to keep watching, is Joan, resilient, girded with certitudes, and surprised, but not that surprised,to find herself in a world she doesn’t understand. That’s 15th century France for you, incomprehensible even to its inhabitants. In Williams’ performance, Joan is always looking upwards towards her heavenly guides and employers, just like Tevye 500 years later (this is the first and only time Joan and Tevye will ever be mentioned in one sentence, and I’m already regretting it). 

Dorothy turns out sparkling short stories, memorable free-floating witticisms, poems that actually rhyme, but she dismisses them all. She has writer’s block where, in her mind, it really counts: the creation of a great American novel à la Hemingway or Fitzgerald has eluded her. She feels sure at some visceral level that the novel is her mission (and Joan is sympathetic at least to that; Joan is big on missions). “The fear of writing badly” is paralyzing.  

Sydney Williams and Kate Newby in Fresh Hell, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

The idea of a woman caught in the cogs of the male machine is there, of course, in both stories, though it seems a little too obvious to be really play-able. For Dorothy the attraction of such a hard-core muse is at least partially Joan’s certainty about her career choice, and her Voices. Dorothy could use a few of those. “My Voice has abandoned me,” she declares of her failure as a novelist. “I’m stuck, empty-handed.” And in the play’s other two scenes, one set in 1932 and in Act II 1964, that sense of failure weighs down on her. “I feel stupid and sad and washed up.” Newby seems to have physically aged at intermission.

In the last scene of the play, Dorothy is at Broadway and 76th in 1964, and Joan is in a Burgundian prison in 1431, faced with a no-win choice: renounce her beliefs and spend the rest of her life there, or refuse to recant and get burned at the stake. She’s bereft to find that her sustaining Voices have abandoned her, and she’s suddenly confronted by the vision of all she will miss if she goes up in flames at 19, having failed, she thinks, to achieve her divine purpose of freeing France. 

As a modern person Dorothy can offer the historical long view; France will soon be its own country anyhow (now “it’s almost unbearably French” ). And Joan will have a legacy: “you have no idea how many lives you will touch.” Though unpractised at consolation, Dorothy tries to offer some personal solace too. Sex? Well, there’s no denying that’s exciting (Joan responds with a blank look). But love? marriage” Over-rated, says Dot, you might not have liked them. It’s Joan’s moment to say hey Dot, lighten up; novels aren’t everything, short stories are worthy too. Not gonna happen.

There’s fun to be had in Fresh Hell‘s cross-century juxtaposition of certainty and skepticism, the unequal weight of inspiration and job satisfaction, and the behind-the-scenes look at the frustrations of a famous writer’s life. But there’s a more vivid comedy waiting to bust out of this one.


Fresh Hell

Theatre: Shadow

Written by: Conni Massing

Directed by: Tracy Carroll

Starring: Kate Newby and Sydney Williams

Where: Varscona Theatre

Running: through Feb. 5



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