Sandra’s Quest Comes Up Short

A “Shaggy Dog” story is one with a high-stakes build-up and much activity that comes to an anti-climactic conclusion, like an elongated joke with an unfunny punchline. A serious shaggy dog story might involve an intricate quest or goal or a mystery that ends abruptly with added information, uncharacteristic behavior, or an unlikely development. David Cale’s one-woman “Sandra,” running through December 11 at the Vineyard Theatre, is a shaggy dog play.

Most solo pieces are autobiographical, a la Gabriel Byrne’s and Mike Birbiglia’s current efforts. Some, though, are fictions, related in the first person for dramatic purposes. “Sandra” is one of those, in which the eponymous narrator (Marjan Neshat), spins a complex yarn about searching for her friend Ethan, who went missing on a pleasure trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Sandra (Marjan Neshat), seated. [Photos: Carol Rosegg]

Alerted to Ethan’s disappearance by a text from an otherwise unidentified Laurie, Sandra is interviewed by a good-cop/bad-cop team whose questioning reveals, among other things, that Sandra, whose full name is Sandra Jones, and Ethan were not romantically involved. (“No, Ethan is gay…He likes boys.”) And that Ethan, sober now, had done drugs in the past that got him into “sexual situations” that were “not good for him.”

As the plot thickens, Sandra, whose Brooklyn coffee café,  Sandra’s, somehow functions just fine without her, makes several round trips to Mexico, where red herring clues include messages in bottles and suspicious characters whose relevance come to naught. One of these is a  70-year old with “that vaguely Southern accent some gay men seem to naturally acquire even though they’ve never been anywhere near the south.” (You never know what you might learn when you go to the theater.)

Sandra, standing.

There is also a brief encounter with a long-haired Australian man and an extended interlude with Luca, an Italian bar-pickup who factors into Sandra’s quests: for Ethan as well as for personal fulfillment. (Luca-Sandra’s tryst is really sexy in the telling.)

Cale’s stage directions instruct that “when Sandra is recalling what other people have said to her, she adopts their voices and accents,” a skill Ms. Neshat has yet to acquire. Stiffly directed by Leigh Silverman on Tony-winning (“Hadestown”) designer Rachel Hauck’s uncharacteristically bland set, Neshat’s movements are limited to alternately sitting and standing stock-still at center stage.

Long-time monologist/playwright Cale and director Silverman caught lightening in a bottle with the similarly staged “Harry Clarke” in 2017, about a Midwesterner who impersonates a Brit. That play, and its actor Billy Crudup, won prestigious Solo Show Awards.  “Sandra” is unlikely to win any awards. While its premise is intermittently interesting, its resolution, relying as it does on a cliché about sudden-reversal drunken self-incrimination and an out-of-left-field prosecutorial maneuver, is textbook shaggy dog.

Through December 11 at The Vineyard Theater, 108East 15th Street, NYC. Info and tickets:


The musical version of “Kimberly Akimbo” premiered off-Broadway in December 2021, where it won Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Best Musical Awards . It is now on Broadway, where it is Tony Award eligible. Comments here are from my earlier review:

How do you improve on perfection? Well, you can’t – by definition. But you can approach it from a different direction, which is what David Lindsay-Abaire has done in adapting his marvelous 2002 play “Kimberly Akimbo” into a musical. With a seamlessly tweaked book that retains and even deepens all the essentials, and his own inspired lyrics set to composer Jeanine Tesori’s (“Fun Home,” “Caroline, or Change”) fetching melodies, Lindsay-Abaire has re-set his flawless gem.

Kimberly is afflicted with progeria, a rare disease that causes the body to age four-plus times the normal rate. Thus, sixteen-year-old Kimberly’s body is in its seventies, near the progeria life expectancy. An unusual topic for a play, never mind a musical, the piece is not overly sentimental or maudlin. The ‘witty and wise comedy with belly laughs and heart tugs,’ as I described it in 2002, embraces its new incarnation. The songs evolve naturally, as if they were always there, just waiting for another perfect actor to embody Kimberly.

Kimberly (Victoria Clark) and Seth (Justin Cooley) hit the road in “Kimberly Akimbo” on Broadway [Photo: Joan Marcus]

Victoria Clark, in her early sixties, quickly establishes Kimberly’s age 16. The elderly-appearing woman seated on a bench, chewing on her necklace, is waiting for her father to pick her up.

A science-class assignment to analyze a disease brings Kimberly and anagram-nerd Seth (Justin Cooley, wonderful) together as lab partners, with her disorder their topic (scurvy was taken). Their relationship deepens, with each step etched on Kimberly’s delicate visage.

A sub-plot about Kimberly’s outrageous aunt Debra (Bonnie Milligan)’s scheme to cash forged checks seems like a diversion, until it becomes key to the uplifting ending. The musical will send you out of the theater on a high, with the image of Kimberly’s satisfied half-smile reflected in your own. Victoria Clark’s stunning performance must be seen to be believed. (And, in an added comment, she and the whole show are even better on Broadway. Get yourself to this one.)

Now at the Booth Theatre, 222 West45th Street.

Broadway, Off Broadway