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'Sandra' review — one-woman thriller sails calmly through dangerous territory

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

David Cale's new one-woman thriller, Sandra, promises a globetrotting (well, from the U.S. to Mexico) mystery that lures its title character into ever-increasing danger. On paper, that's true. But this Vineyard Theatre production, while it might make an absorbing novel, doesn't quite thrill as theatre, feeling less like a journey through choppy waters and more like a steady cruise.

The play opens with Sandra (Marjan Neshat) relaying a conversation with Ethan, her best friend, in which he says: "“I feel like disappearing from my life." And sure enough, Ethan travels to Mexico and doesn't come back. He's about all she has: She's separated from her husband and blows up most opportunities to rekindle things, and she often turns to drink immediately after insisting she shouldn't. Keeping with that self-destructive streak, she flies solo to Mexico to look for Ethan even though an (admittedly patronizing) FBI agent is on the case.

While there, she encounters a few people that, this being a detective story, we're inclined to suspect: namely, a friendly gay Manhattanite named Beauford, and an alluring half-Italian man named Luca, with whom Sandra begins an affair. He quickly emerges as the bad-guy frontrunner, though a tattoo on his arm, which I won't reveal, subtly hints at his true purpose in the story.

For a thriller, however, Sandra doesn't quite succeed as a thrill ride. While Neshat is a warm and energetic storyteller, there's only so much she can do to add shades of nuance to a story written primarily as a sequence of "and then this happened."

Under Leigh Silverman's direction, the pacing remains even throughout, save for one scene in which Sandra scrambles to escape Luca's house while drugged. Frantic line delivery and near-total darkness (the evocative lighting is by Thom Weaver) make that moment feel truly chilling. Yet weightier events like her final confrontation with Luca, her testimony against him, and a subsequent fire at her cafe — all squeezed into Sandra's last 20 minutes — come and go in the span of a few lines.

Cale's script, instead, spends a lot more time than necessary dwelling on Luca's irresistible Italian sexiness, and Sandra's shock that someone like him is attracted to her, with increasing cringeworthiness. Much of Sandra's first half borders on pulp-magazine erotica rather than suspense. (So, romance novel readers who love a bad boy trope, this may be the play for you.) We — and Cale, seemingly — almost forget for a good chunk of the play that Sandra's supposed to be looking for Ethan, and by the time we come back around to that, it feels like an afterthought.

If expanded upon to give equal time to all its threads, Sandra would make a great thriller book; it's certainly written like one already, with one narrator describing everything that happens and the reader conjuring the scenes and emotions in their mind. Audiences at Sandra can imagine the story's twists and tensions well enough, but with the tools of a visual medium like theatre at its disposal, they shouldn't just have to imagine.

Sandra is at Vineyard Theatre through December 11. Get Sandra tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Marjan Neshat in Sandra. (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

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