Taking a Leap with Melena

MelenaSomewhere in the first act, Russian émigré Melena (Sarah Tolan Mee) shoots out the window of her Lower East Side apartment and, with manic glee, races down the fire escape. A few partygoers look on after her from the window. Her husband, at wit’s end, shouts, “There’s nothing for you out there, Melena!”

Somewhere in her feverish mind, she’s asking, “Why am I running?” To this, she won’t have an answer for another two acts. Three days earlier she married Jack, (Drew Ledbetter), a patient and sometimes stern Nebraskan, in a ceremony she has no memory of. Ever since they’ve been living the life of a tenement couple; at night Jack card sharks for money while Melena paints and leaps about in an imaginative blur during the day.

Perhaps sensing Melena would prove to be an unstable adult, her father (Mark Cohen) hired Jack to look after her when she arrived in the United States at 16. We don’t see what became of her father, whose quintessential Russian grief we only see played out in flashbacks from a yellowing Moscow hotel room.

Jack deals with Melena as best he can in the onset of her delirious state. Flitting back and forth in a tatty nightgown, she often coos and derides him in the same sentence: “Jackie kiss me and I’ll leave you alone … I’m so disappointed, I had hopes for you!” She doesn’t know what’s going on inside of her, but she needs an outlet for it. Fast.

Enter her Russian cousins, a mischievous vagabond named Labo (Leicester Landon), and his grinning, one-armed accomplice, Jesse (Andrew Polec). Together they drink vodka, sing Russian rock songs loudly, and generally make Jack annoyed enough to bring home his own cousin, a buxom blonde in red named Sheila (Alexandra Lawrence). The five of them sit together, unhappily and happily.

Sheila has the best lines in the show. She’s intellectually stupid with a high emotional IQ. In conversation with Jack, she bemoans that her boyfriend makes the same meal night after night: pasta. She wonders aloud, “It begs the question – is this it?” Jack interprets this to mean, “Is this what it means to be in a relationship?” and mistakenly feels a connection with her on this level. But then she continues, “… I mean, I know it’s not his fault that he can’t provide all the protein we need,” which shows that she’s squarely talking about the meal itself rather than the relationship.

Emily Young’s play is unconventionally structured to give free rein to Melena’s delirious daydreams, which range from  being a secret agent to the occasional visit from her father or an old baseball player boyfriend (also played by Andrew Poloc). This keeps things fresh by keeping us guessing what comes next, but rarely does it offer much illumination about Melena ‘s character or condition. Maybe what Young wants us to see here is the process by which Melena comes to these decisions about herself, instead of focusing on the end result. In other words, we’re there just to watch her leap from rung to rung, trying to find her escape.

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