Neal Radice’s new play “Night Work,” a heartfelt exploration of women’s rights in World War I-era Buffalo that opened in Alleyway Theatre last Thursday, begins and ends with some excellent writing.
In the first scene, we meet the young couple Anna and Karl Schmidt (Eliza Blake and Tyler Brown) in the midst of a nervous chat about how Anna will carry on while Karl is off fighting in the war.
In the final scene, we watch a rousing speech from a suffragette (Bethany Sparacio) celebrating the passage of the 19th Amendment, expertly woven together with the cynical thoughts of a Buffalo business owner. The masterful construction of that scene reveals something essential about the way politics works – or doesn’t work – in America.
To link the first well-chosen words of the play to its final lines, a playwright would need to produce some extraordinary connective tissue. But that tissue is lacking in Radice’s play, which tries valiantly to animate the key points in a fascinating historical narrative but ends up getting mired in the details.
The play, as Radice wrote in his notes in the playbill, resulted from a Google search. He stumbled across a court case that involved an attempt by his great uncle Joe Radice to challenge a New York State law limiting the conditions under which female employees were allowed to work.
Radice, as it happened, owned the Rotisserie Restaurant, a well-regarded establishment in the building that now houses the Irish Classical Theatre Company’s Andrews Theatre. One of his waitresses was caught working past 10 p.m. by an inspector, which was then against the state’s sexist labor laws, and Radice took on the law with the backing of Buffalo’s powerful association of restaurant owners.
On its surface, this story seems to have all the makings of a fascinating drama with local relevance and obvious modern echoes. And while Radice got off to a promising start by giving us relatable characters like the Schmidts and the outline of a compelling human story, he erred by relying far too heavily on the courtroom transcript of the trial.
The play spends far too much time in the courtroom, as an ineffectual lawyer portrayed by Roger VanDette wades through the copious minutiae of early 20th-century labor law with a seemingly endless procession of witnesses. The state’s gruff attorney, played by Darryl Hart, does his best to fend off those arguments. This is truly nap-inducing stuff that could stand to be cut by three quarters or more, and it quickly scuttles the promise of the play’s first few scenes.
There are no Clarence Darrows or William Jennings Bryans waiting in the wings to rescue this particular courtroom drama, as those characters so effectively do in the 1955 play “Inherit the Wind.” Despite a magnetic performance from Timothy Patrick Finnegan and some nice moments from other cast members, the scenes of endless arguing and questioning are painfully circular on the stage.
The musculature of a fine historical drama exists underneath all the flabby legalese, and Radice is more than capable of drawing it out. But, whether out of a misguided fidelity to the original material or lack of perspective, he let his story get lost in the details.
What: “Night Work”
When: Through Oct. 5
Where: Alleyway Theatre, 1 Curtain Up Alley
Tickets: $13 to $25
Info: 852-2600 or alleyway.com