Knots Landing, Desperate Housewives, The Real Housewives of New Jersey: There are mischievous shades of all three in Hurricane Diane, which just opened at the New York Theatre Workshop, alongside a dollop of the story of the Greek god Dionysus, who is the real identity of the gardener Diane of the play’s title.
Diane is Dionysus in swaggering modern form; Becca Blackwell plays the gardener brilliantly, with a suggestive leer, lusty smile, and deeply felt serious purpose, as an upsetter of order and galvanizer of emotion and lust.
As she tells us directly, Diane is on a mission not just to cause chaos in the lives of a group of New Jersey housewives, but to bring earthy passion and the lushness of the earth, which she feels the modern world is lacking, back to throbbing life.
The gardens she wants to create are not the sterile, sensible patios or tricksily ornate choices of a ritzy New Jersey cul-de-sac, but harkings back to when the wilds ran wild. Just as Dionysus did in The Bacchae, here Diane is on a mission of vengeance, albeit she hopes, one that will help her victims and the society around them rejuvenate themselves. See it more as restorative natural justice.
There is a lovely humor to George’s play, directed with an anarchic brio by Leigh Silverman, running alongside (somehow) a passionate and very serious treatise on environmental and cultural malaise and emotional release. The question is how willing and easy-to-seduce the housewives, played by Mia Barron, Michelle Beck, Danielle Skraastad, and Kate Wetherhead, will be when faced with Diane and her irresistible wiles.
All four of the women are carefully and wittily drawn, and bought to stage life just as sharply. Wetherhead’s Beth is the most recently hurt by an absent husband and the most vulnerable, Beck’s Renee is a frustrated lifestyle magazine editor, proud of being the first black woman to hold her position, while she agonizes exactly over the dreams she is selling to readers. Skraastad’s Pam is a Teresa Giudice made even bigger for the stage, and just as fearsome and loud as her Bravo mirror image.
Best of all, there is Barron’s Carol, whose horror at her friends’ various conversions to lust is voiced with a querulous disgust. Barron is hilarious even when she is not speaking, just looking balefully at all around her, and although we should side with Diane and her dictum of loosey-goosey let it all hang out theatrics, it is Carol, who is the biggest barrier to Diane’s intentions, that we come to cheer; Diane, with her love of order and the prettiness of glossy magazines to ward off everyday demons and sorrows; Diane, with her insistence on behaving sensibly and not letting go; Diane who just wants the cleanest and chic-est garden in the cul-de-sac; and Barron plays her dissension to the licentiousness embodied by Diane as its own rising crescendo.
Ultimately Rachel Hauk’s wonderful set of bland, rich person's kitchen (replicated in all four of the women’s homes) undergoes its own destruction as environmental devastation and a war of psychic energies and worlds enfolds the cul-de-sac. This comes down to Diane versus Carol and their conflicting belief systems, and it’s a testament to the skills of George and Silverman, and the sharp intelligence of Hurricane Diane, that the stakes feel as serious as they do ridiculous.
Hurricane Diane is at New York Theatre Workshop until March 24.