“I felt some pain,” one of the characters yelps toward the end of Annie-B Parson’s The Mood Room. The unfamiliar sensation comes as a complete surprise, something never before experienced, and the character, a sprite-like beauty by the name of Rachel, scampers around, unhinged, as if she believed such unpleasantness could be outrun.
Rachel is one of five beauties who inhabit Parson’s play-with-movement, five sisters, denizens of a calming, all-white space framed by fringed curtains. A rectangular piece of plexiglass evokes a reflecting pool. The mood room of the title is never seen, but always present in the sisters’ conversations, where they say things like “I’ll go to the mood room,” “my new painting is in the mood room.” As Maria, the most capricious of the sisters, mentions at the start, this well-lit space is meant to represent their childhood home, to which they have returned one year after their parents’ death.
Parsons’ piece is based on Guy de Cointet’s 1982 play Five Sisters, an atmospheric meditation on vapid 1980’s Los Angeles. It also draws, ever-so-delicately, from Chekhov’s play Three Sisters. There are hints of the melancholy and boredom so often expressed by Chekhov’s characters, and sly references to Chekhov’s world, as when one of the sisters mentions waiting for a troika to arrive.
In the program note, Parson writes that the characters embody the early “me generation” and the “the first stirrings of the Wellness Movement.” They hint at the “disfiguring and enduring damage of the Reagan era… when our civic awareness and participation crumbled.” The stakes in the program note are rather higher than those in the play, which revolves around the characters’ ponderings on such mundane subjects as exotic vacations, fixing their “hairs,” wellness therapies and their associated gurus, and how “radiant” this or that sister appears.
The baseline here is the characters’ blankness, their lack of urgency, desire or need. Their faces are frozen in the inexpressive moue of Instagram stars, conscious of their most attractive angles and the way the light hits their skin. They pose, pivoting from one side to another like fashion models, engaging in limp and repetitive phrases of movement in which every position of the hand and fingers seems pre-determined and curated for effect. The lighting and stylishly deconstructed costumes, and Holly Herndon’s mood music (no pun intended) suggest the pallid idea of chic comfort, as encountered in luxury magazines and Pottery Barn stores.
Maria (the sylph-like Kate Moran) speaks of her allergy to the sun and her vacation on “the remote island,” with its relaxed native population of bocuse peoples (an invented tribe). Polly (the more severe Eliabeth DeMent) is adamant about the importance of “work,” though what that word actually means to her is never apparent. Yvonne (Michelle Sui, the only sister who seems to do something) is a painter, concerned with the effects of color. Rachel, played by Myssi Robinson, bounds and whirls across the stage, as if to prove to us that she is an artistic free spirit.
One of the sisters, Eileen (played by the trans actress Theda Hammel), appears only once. She has a new boyfriend, who is married, with children. “He’s athletic,” she says, “very athletic.” No-one ever smiles.
Pain has no place in this well-groomed world. Its arrival brings about a mini-crisis, however brief. We barely feel its prick. Like the rest of the play, it means little, and quickly dissolves into an anodyne pool of superficiality, and boredom. Generally speaking, Mood Room’s stakes are too low to arouse more than a minimal curiosity in the absent inner lives of its characters or the world they represent.