If you’re as puzzled by this play’s title as I was, here’s what I found out: “British English, informal. To act in a clever way to get what you want, sometimes tricking and deceiving somebody.”
But, oddly, Inis Nua’s American premiere production of Box Clever, a 2017 play by Monsay Whitney, is not about either trickery or deceit, and nobody gets what they want. This is London at its grimmest, with the play taking the form of a quasi-documentary about the horrible world of women’s shelters, ironically called “refuges” in the U.K. The irony lies in the fact that they may be more dangerous and damaging than the circumstances they offer a refuge from.
Marnie (Ruby Wolf) is a case in point. And that’s a problem: She isn’t really a person, or a developed character, but a sociological example. Her situation is this: Danny, the father of her child, 4-year-old Autumn, is nowhere to be seen. Liam, her violent boyfriend, keeps calling her, asking for money, until he’s arrested again. Stevie, the most recent boyfriend — well, what with the accents and the speeches delivered half the time with her back to half the audience, I kind of lost track.
It is discovered that Autumn has been sexually abused by the son of one of the other women living in rat-ridden Marigold House. The social workers are unable to provide help or alternative housing, and Marnie goes through endless bureaucratic rigamarole, growing more and more desperate, enraged,suicidal, and homicidal. As she cheerily remarks when Autumn accidentally kills a butterfly, “Chaos follows us everywhere.”
Marnie’s is a too-familiar story since, apparently, the situation of impoverished, abused women is the same in the U.K. as in the United States. It is, certainly, terrible and shameful that such circumstances exist. But we already know this, don’t we? What does Box Clever add? Much of the story is told in monologue as Marnie speaks her thoughts and feelings aloud, and Wolf carries the burden of the show, while Rachel Brodeur plays the child and all the other roles (while wearing the brightly striped jersey and red overalls of a toddler).
This is the kind of script actors, I imagine, enjoy: They can show off their virtuosity and revel in their craft. The colorful set, designed by Meghan Jones, is surprisingly bright and and immaculate for a a vermin-infested institution. Tom Reing directs.