Review: Deirdre O’Connell Lip Syncs for Her Life in Lucas Hnath’s “Dana H.”

At this point it is hard to go more than a few months without a Lucas Hnath play. “The Thin Place” at Playwrights Horizons closed just a few weeks ago, and now we herald the opening of the wunderkind’s latest work, “Dana H.” Hnath is such a versatile, chameleonic playwright that it seems as if he has challenged himself to master — or at least attempt — every major style of drama. He has given us a literary sequel, a religious critique, an historical allegory, and a spiritualist psychological thriller, to name a few. Expanding this already ever-expanding playbook is his verbatim piece “Dana H.,” playing at the Vineyard Theatre, which is adapted from interview transcripts featuring none other than his own mother, Dana Higginbotham.

While the verbatim theatre trend (sometimes called documentary theatre or theatre of the Real), may seem like a theatrical vestige of former era, in the age of fake news it is making a comeback. The Vineyard Theatre’s previous production, “Is This a Room” was also in this style, and caused quite a stir due to its topical and political nature. “Dana H.,” while not having the current events vibe that documentary theatre often has, nonetheless has a rather compelling subject. In the interviews, Hnath’s mother tells the story of when she was kidnapped for several months by an escaped patient from a mental institute.

See, you can’t help but be intrigued. On the surface, this seems like the basis of an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, but despite the melodrama, it is a true story told from the victim, or more accurately, the survivor of the terrifying events. If that brief plot summary was not enough to draw you in, the actual stage business certainly will: the entire performance is projected audio from Hnath’s mother, lip synced with shocking and extraordinary precision by Deirdre O’Connell.

That’s right, you read that correctly. She has headphones in and for the entire performance perfectly lip syncs with the audio of Hnath’s mother, down to each stutter, sigh, leg slap, bracelet-filled wrist twist, cough, and vocal tick. She holds a packet of papers, but it is a prop, she does not read from a script. She has every excruciatingly paced-out second of her 75-minute monologue memorized.

O’Connell lip syncs with such dexterity and expertise that she makes every professional drag queen look amateurish in comparison. The sonic exactitude of her vocal and physical performance is so unbelievable that I spent the majority of the production with my mouth open in shock; the level of synchronization that she has achieved is so unparalleled it seems impossible. However, her star turn does not end solely with her vocal tricks; she gives an amazing performance of a woman who is deeply traumatized, struggling to remember, and somewhat begrudgingly retelling her deeply painful and deeply personal story of being kidnapped.

The story being told is a difficult one to hear — there’s violence, manipulation, police incompetence, sexual assault, and a gradual breaking down of our subject’s psyche and her general will to live — but no matter how hard it is to hear, O’Connell’s performances makes us see how much harder it must have been to experience it, to live through it.

Her story is not a straightforward one, and the audio itself has clearly been heavily chopped up and edited by Hnath. In a statement sent to critics, Hnath said that he could not send a script because he had no way to notate the editing that he did in conjunction with sound designer Mikhail Fiksel; as a script for a play, it is not legible, it is filled with jump cuts, overlapping text, “non-verbal utterances and language that is intentionally difficult to make out.”

Interestingly enough, “Is This a Room” listed no playwright (it was an unedited FBI transcript), but “Dana H.” is clearly credited “by Lucas Hnath,” despite the fact that he did not write anything for it, and ensured the press that “every word in the play is drawn from those interviews.” So then the playwrighting credit here, the work he did, is all in that editing, the splicing, the ordering, the narrative he created from hours of non-linear interviews.

However, it is necessary to parse out what exactly makes “Dana H.” work as a piece of theatre. The source material is undeniably enthralling. The central performance is legendary. The editing, though, and the direction by Les Waters, seem to be the least successful portions. The piece, roughly in thirds, is textually arranged and stylistically directed in a way that make it less successful as it goes on: toward the middle the audio overlaps manically, the lights by Paul Toben strobe in surreal colors, O’Connell disappears, and a maid silently makes the bed. Bizarrely, and without explanation or justification, a verbatim play briefly turns into an episode of HBO’s “Room 104.” Afterwards, O’Connell returns and gives a quasi-sermon on death, which ends sans resolution of any kind.

So although the story being told is terrifyingly captivating, and O’Connell’s performance is one that demands to be seen, the play itself does not necessarily work; all the external work done by Hnath, Waters, and the designers seems to have weakened the piece overall, diluting any sense of narrative closure or message. Instead, we are given a strange, inscrutable, unbelievable, and imperfect 75 minutes — but most importantly, we are given a masterclass lip sync by Deirdre O’Connell which alone makes “Dana H.” absolutely worth the trip.

Theater Critic. Vassar College alum, current PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center.

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