Katie Northlich has that commanding sort of physical presence that can hold a room with ease. There is a boldness in her look, an assuredness in her movements that can compel you to watch, whether she’s meekly sipping a glass of tea, or absently raking a hand through her hair while at the end of her tether. But, as her self-authored, one woman show, The Panic Diaries, playing at the Studio in Cherry Lane Theatre, amply demonstrates, she is a consummate actress, and no doubt can make herself invisible in a crowd if she so desired. Some dark glasses might be useful to this end, as she is possessed of a pair of large, glancing eyes that betray the intelligence and watchfulness within. Likely she is aware of this, as she uses their impact to focus an audience, and their watchfulness in appropriating the behavioral niceties of different character types. As an actress she is altogether self-possessed. Which makes it most interesting that the several characters she brings to life in this show are very much the opposite; people who have somehow lost themselves in the act of becoming what they believe is expected of them. On a psychological level, this particular malaise must be the classic actor’s dilemma. Adept at becoming someone else, they experience difficulty merely being themselves. So, for all her poise here, we can believe that she knows something of what she speaks.
We are presented with an unnamed woman, alone in her apartment, beset by the troubling sense that she has somehow, somewhere, lost the plot of her life. To her diary she pours out fears and frustrations, lamenting a feeling that things have lost their meaning, their value, their taste. Nothing survives as a refuge – her identity, her aspirations, her relationships. It is a dark and lonely place. Panic ensues. Each imploding diary encounter moves us along to a sketch featuring a new character Northlich gamely embodies in situations both banal – at a department store exploring bridal registry gift options – and pathological – a well-heeled southern woman comes apart in the course of a coffee date with friends. All of her women are, in some sense, heart-breakingly pathetic, even as Northlich, a natural comedian with a fluid expressivity, raises the comical pitch to hilarious levels. An explosive young chatterbox, visiting a gynecologist, erupts into a non-stop spiel about her profligate sex life to a hapless stranger in the waiting room, establishing new dimensions around the term inappropriate. It is both ridiculously funny and terribly sad. Which is to say it is the best sort of theatre. Before this character has even opened her mouth, with just the restless flick of her eye play, Northlich has delivered us the hopelessly narcissistic soul of the young woman.
All of her women suffer from a compulsion to say something that has unsettling consequences. A homeless woman, begging at a store entrance, is reliant on the store keeper’s daily charitable gift of a single cigarette. But she can’t stop herself sounding off at one of his customers and consequently unwittingly forfeits her smoke privileges. A nervous encounter between past college lovers prompts a young woman to carelessly divulge that she had a secret abortion following their break-up. The true self, long ignored and repressed, will eventually out. Spurned and un-nurtured, it is not surprising that rage will be leading.
There is a fine balance between the comedy of the sketches and the relentlessly self-questioning diarist’s scenes. Perhaps the solemn, unwavering tone of the diarist is overshadowed by the finer plumage worn by the sketch characters, but this tug-of-war feeds into the larger theme of imbalance, polarization, and self-alienation. There is art in it. Concentrated and, at just one hour and ten minutes, winningly brief, the whole performance is a tonic and a salutary riposte to the Sex and the City set, for whom Life seems reducible merely to the mother and father of all shopping lists (check off as you go). Director Joe Ricci uses a craftily light hand, allowing Northtlich to come through fully. Really there’s no call for panic here; everyone – characters, actor, and audience – are very nicely served.
The Panic Diaries