by Loren Noveck · February 13, 2015
Under the skin of a visually dazzling production (directed by Jessica Kubzansky), Sheila Callaghan’s Everything You Touch has the fairly conventional bone structure of a romantic comedy.True, there’s a thread a little more complicated, and certainly a little more interesting, trying to tease its way through—starting with that contrast between structure and surface, a fitting metaphor for a play set and steeped in the world of high fashion yet charting the journey of a woman with an at-best ambivalent relationship to the conventional trappings of femininity. But the piece never quite lives up to or plays out its more interesting ideas, slumping into an ending of self-discovery and fulfillment for the heroine that doesn’t feel entirely earned.
The play opens with a fashion show: In 1974, Victor Carmichael, a glam-rock sprite of a fashion designer whose brattiness and narcissism might be almost matched by his talent, sends models down the runway in animal-themed outfits that straddle the border of glamour and grotesquerie: lame and swaths of sequins and glitter mingle with intricate 3D animal masks and zebra manes and hoof-like shoes. (Jenny Foldenauer’s costumes, which sometimes intermingle with John Burton’s props and Francois-Pierre Couture’s sets to become scenic elements, are truly stunning: witty pieces of pop art that also fully read as edgy designer clothing.) One of Carmichael’s models stumbles on the runway, and after he berates her viciously, she commits suicide—which he mocks as “the most banal choice a human can make.”
In the present day, Jess, a badly dressed nerd (at one point she’s called, meanly but accurately, “Flannel and Bagel Girl”) who hasn’t washed her hair in four days, receives a message that her mother—from whom she is long estranged—is dying back home in Little Rock. Jess’s colleague/confidant/guy who’s-clearly-in-love-with-her, Lewis, insists that she go, even booking the rental car for her over her objections. But before she does, Jess, seeking a little validation that doesn’t require actual intimacy, hits her local bar to pick up a guy who’s just her type: rail-thin, self-absorbed, and artsy. In fact, he’s Victor (not Victor forty years later, but the same fey British narcissist in the same striking outfits).
As we cut back and forth between Victor’s studio in 1975—his combative relationship with his “muse,” Esme; his introduction to Louella, a contest winner from Little Rock, who begins as a curious visitor from the world of middle America and turns into his new inspiration; his growing struggle with the desire to make clothes people might actually wear—and Jess’s road trip, on which her one-night-stand accompanies her, we start to realize the connection between the two. Not so much a lover as a phantasm of “pixels. And dust,” Victor becomes some sort of “good angel” on Jess’s shoulder: encouraging her to imagine a “Future Jess” who’s less trapped by her own self-loathing, not to mention accompanying her to her mother’s deathbed and allowing her to work through some of her issues with her long-dead father.
The journey builds to Jess’s final confrontation with her mother—the mother who decimated her self-esteem and turned her into a person who seems emotionally cut off and almost intentionally estranged from her body at every moment other than perhaps during the act of sex. But that confrontation gives us a far-too-linear explanation for how Jess’s mother’s tortured psyche and her father’s abandonment added up to (again very literal) Oedipal and body-image issues. Jess’s imagination of, and transformation into, her supposed future self also feels too simply laid out: future Jess is different than regular Jess in surface ways—she has better makeup and a glamorous but brutally uncomfortable wardrobe—but it feels a little too easy that taking on the trappings of fashion gives her the strength to finally fight back against her mother’s vitriol. And once identified, the problem seems too easy to dismiss, freeing Jess to respond to Lewis’s more-than-a-little-stalkerish attentions. .
It’s especially frustrating because there’s something almost there. Line by line and observation by observation, Callaghan’s writing is as sharp and weird and bristling with ideas as ever. And there’s an undercurrent that toys with the perpetually analyzed interplay between looking and being looked at (the launching point for so much feminist performance/film theory). It starts at the beginning, when Victor talks about fashion in a way that’s almost/also talking about theater: “I want to see what television and film and a book and poetry can't deliver. Immediacy. Fervor. Wreckage. When the model spits with rage, I want to feel that spittle. I want to smell your sweat.” And that undercurrent that builds theatrically from the creepily effective technique of a chorus of three models who walk in Victor’s runway show at the beginning, but then become outright instruments of the play: dressed in flesh-colored unitards, alternately moving and becoming scenery (a bottle of hot sauce; a giant beer; the Gideon bible and bedside phone of a cheap motel; a giant carton ot Thai takeout noodles—as I said, the costumes are hallucinatorily amazing). Their bodies are literally plastic, and it’s both funny and disturbing, theatrically original and almost pornographically objectifying. But that theme doesn’t quite work its way thoroughly into the fabric of the play, only the fabric of the space.
Still, the stunning production gets you a long way, and the whole thing works better than it ought to: All the visual elements are so interesting, and Kubzansky does smart work with her actors, especially the Victor/Esme/Louella triad of Christian Coulson, Tonya Glanz, and Lisa Kitchens. Coulson, in particular, is a treat to watch, keeping a lovable, sincere core under Victor’s gleeful embrace of his own self-absorption, a core that’s utterly necessary to making any of the relationships work. But I wish the potential in the subtext had made its way more convincingly into the main arc of the play.