Reviews NYCOff-Broadway Published 17 December 2022

Review: Des Moines at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center

Polonsky Shakespeare Center ⋄ December 10, 2022-January 1, 2023

Denis Johnson’s play gives us an evening in limbo with an exceptional cast. Loren Noveck reviews.

Loren Noveck
Michael Shannon as Father Michael, Hari Nef as Jimmy, Arliss Howard as Dan, Heather Alicia Simms as Mrs. Drinkwater, Johanna Day as Marta in Des Moines. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

Michael Shannon as Father Michael, Hari Nef as Jimmy, Arliss Howard as Dan, Heather Alicia Simms as Mrs. Drinkwater, Johanna Day as Marta in Des Moines. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

“Will you do me a favor?” Dan asks first his wife, Marta, and then their priest, Father Michael. “I want you to suddenly yell at me to wake up–that I’m dreaming.” 

At first glance, there’s no dreamlike quality to the second-floor apartment where Des Moines takes place. We see two rooms, a kitchen and the dimly glimpsed living room beyond it, with a hallway to one side and a back porch to the other. Riccardo Hernández’s set has a dense, lived-in solidity, with its full cupboards and things jumbled atop them, its knickknacks and potholders and mismatched coffee mugs. So, too, does the relationship between Dan (Arliss Howard) and Marta (Johanna Day) feel textured and lived-in as the play begins: half listening to each other while busy doing other things, sharing a bottle of beer, microwaving leftovers–Day and Howard perfectly capture the physicality of a couple in late middle age and struggling middle class who know each other so well they operate on instinct. They live in the Polish Des Moines neighborhood where they grew up; their priest, Father Michael (Michael Shannon), is likewise a local boy whom they’ve known their whole lives. Dan joined the army as a young man, hoping to go somewhere different, but wound up in the motor pool at Fort Des Moines, and here they are. 

Nothing really happens in Des Moines, one of a handful of plays written by the novelist and short story writer Denis Johnson, and the nothing that happens has a certain resemblance to a short story: a contained set of characters in a single room on a single night. In a kitchen in Des Moines, three family members, their priest, and a guest get drunk together and sing a little karaoke and fall asleep and have strange dreams, and in the morning they go back to their regularly scheduled lives.  

And yet, something is off almost from the beginning. Dan is telling Marta a story that he swears he’s told before, but that she doesn’t remember, a story about a plane crash. There’s someone in the next room who keeps turning the TV volume up. Marta’s invited Father Michael over but won’t tell Dan why. There’s something we’re not seeing here. We start to notice the way that oh-so-realistic kitchen is suspended in midair in the Polonsky Shakespeare Center. We get a glimpse into the living room, liberally draped with Christmas lights, though it’s not Christmas…or is it? 

And as the play proceeds, more and more moments of ambiguity, of limbo, pile up, characters forced out of one state but unable to face the next: Awake and asleep. Living and dying. Able-bodied and disabled. Male and female. Faith and doubt. Celibacy and sexual identity. Married and widowed. They’re widening the roads in the old neighborhood. Dan and Marta’s dog ran away; they can’t remember when, but its food and water dishes still stand by the door.

That solid foundation…isn’t, really; maybe it never was. Dan screams horrible obscenities in his sleep. Marta has invited the priest over to force Dan to face the reality of her terminal diagnosis. Marta and Dan’s granddaughter, Jimmy (Hari Nef), has recently become unable to walk after complications during her sex change surgery. She’s trapped in the second floor apartment in a living room where she’s decreed it’s always Christmas–decorating with Christmas lights, wearing a Santa hat along with a brightly colored sweater dress and glitter boots. Dan, a cab driver, recently drove a man to the airport to catch a flight that crashed; his widow, Mrs. Glen Drinkwater (Heather Alicia Simms), keeps coming to see Dan, trying to find the last person who remembers her husband. (The play begins with the loud whirr of a plane taking off, another liminal moment, suspended between the ground and the sky.) She’s adrift in the sudden dissipation of the life she knew. Father Michael shows up at the wrong time because he’s lost track of clock and calendar; Dan’s seen him hanging around the local gay bar at closing time, in a full face of makeup, hovering between his duties as a priest and his desires as a man. 

Director Arin Arbus doesn’t lean away from either the bleakness or the comfort that these people find, briefly, in one another, and she gets nuanced, unsentimental performances out of the entire ensemble. It’s the little pops of connection and recognition between them that power the play. Day is determinedly even-tempered, but moments of melancholy creep in; Howard is restless, veering between jovial storytelling and little prickles of rage. Shannon, towering over the rest of the company, and in dramatic, inexpert make-up for most of the action, seems to fold up on himself like he’s trying to disappear. Nef’s Jimmy is both tender and impish, wanting to be the center of attention but also hiding behind a karaoke microphone. And Simms’s Ellen Drinkwater puts a glazed politeness on to cover the fact that she can barely keep track of her name or what date it is. In this room, she’s the outsider: the single Lutheran among Catholics, the single Black woman among a white crowd, the single stranger among family. Yet she too finds a certain freedom, a certain joy, here.   

In the morning, Mrs. Drinkwater does a thought experiment. “We all decide to get off the plane,” she says. “Even the pilot.” And then she goes back to her life. Maybe it’s possible to break out of stasis, to move on from limbo. Denis Johnson isn’t really going to guide you one way or the other–it’s a nagging frustration in the script, but it’s also what makes it intriguing. 

None of them really have much help, or much succor, to offer one another–only the solace of presence and the comfort of depth charges drunk out of Dan’s collection of purloined souvenir shot glasses. Even when they’re howling with laughter, there’s still a wary loneliness in all of them, a way in which each of them is confessing into a void. The karaoke party is nothing more nor less than a pressure-release valve, a crossing place, a shout of joy in the face of existential dread. There’s not really any deeper meaning to be found in one’s cups, here–just momentary camaraderie and some very strange dreams. Maybe that’s the best humanity does have to offer us.

Loren Noveck

Loren Noveck is a writer, editor, dramaturg, and recovering Off-Off-Broadway producer, who was for many years the literary manager of Six Figures Theatre Company. She has written for The Brooklyn Rail,, and NYTheater now, and currently writes for The Brooklyn Paper and WIT Online. In her non-theatrical life, she works in book publishing.

Review: Des Moines at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center Show Info

Produced by Theater for a New Audience

Directed by Arin Arbus

Written by Denis Johnson

Choreography by Byron Easley

Scenic Design Riccardo Hernández; COSTUME DESIGN: Qween Jean

Lighting Design Scott Zielinski

Sound Design Mikaal Sulaiman

Cast includes Johanna Day, Arliss Howard, Hari Nef, Michael Shannon, Heather Alicia Simms

Original Music Mikaal Sulaiman

Show Details & Tickets

Running Time 90 minutes


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