World premiere ‘GOODNIGHT NOBODY’ at McCarter looks at what lies beneath

© McCarter Theatre Center

The title “GOODNIGHT NOBODY” – the new play by Rachel Bonds enjoying its world premiere run at McCarter Theatre Center through Feb. 9 – comes from Margaret Wise Brown’s 1947 book “Goodnight Moon,” a children’s favorite for generations.

The main character, a bunny, says “goodnight” to the things around him, beginning with his room and moving on to include kittens and mittens, socks and clocks, the stars and the air and “voices everywhere.”

Then comes the largely blank page where the bunny says, “Goodnight Nobody.”

“I was like, ‘What the hell? I don’t remember this,’” Bonds recalled. “It was so eery and full of loneliness and it got under my skin. The play is very much about people feeling moments of loneliness and deep isolation.”

The play was commissioned by McCarter after the theater closed its 2015 season with Bonds’ “Five Mile Lake.” The theater is well known for fostering young talents, especially those that are traditionally underrepresented, including women and minorities. Past successes include Nilo Cruz’s “Anna in the Tropics” and Danai Gurira’s “The Convert.”

Artistic Director Emily Mann said McCarter wanted to support Bonds because “Five Mile Lake” showed her “Rachel was her way to becoming a major new American playwright.” But Bonds was unsure of what to focus on until she gave birth to her son in the fall of 2016 and found herself feeling a bit “fractured.”

“I was trying to figure out how I would do all of these things: How am I going to write the way I used to and still have time for this human being I’m responsible for and for my family at large? How do I do this? How do I go on?” Bonds said. “The play was born out of all of those questions and all of the characters have some aspects of my personality. They’re deeply questioning and many are at a moment of crisis.”

“Goodnight Nobody,” which is directed by Tyne Rafaeli, centers on three childhood friends reunited for a weekend. There’s K (Ariel Woodiwiss), a teacher who has brought along her baby; Nan (Saamer Usmani), a painter; and Reggie (Nate Miller), a stand-up comedian – who are reunited after years apart for a weekend. They are joined by Mara, Reggie’s mother (Dana Delany) and her boyfriend, Bo (Ken Marks).

It seems like a big party – until long-buried feelings and previously unspoken thoughts arise. As the title suggests, darkness can underlie anything.

“It’s an interesting play because it’s deceptively complex. You think it’s one thing and then it’s another,” said Delany, a two-time Emmy Award winner who has enjoyed success in TV and movies. “You might think Rachel’s writing is naturalistic but it’s really finely tuned and very specific. You think you’re just watching these people live on stage but there’s a lot more at play.”

The production poses questions about motherhood and womanhood, choices and sacrifices. The play ends with two female characters having an honest conversation about lives that are far from social media-perfect.

“It’s really hard to scroll through Instagram because it just doesn’t tell the whole truth. You might see a picture of a mother and her child and it’s beautiful and full of love, but you’re seeing they were up for four hours the night before and everybody was crying,” Bonds said. “It’s hard not to look and compare yourself and feel deficient in some way. You have to remind yourself that you’re not seeing the whole picture.”

Credit: NJ Advance Media