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‘Sandra’ Off Broadway Review: Murder, She Wrote Very Awkwardly

A new mystery by David Cale fails to offer much in the way of suspense

A woman stuck in an unhappy marriage gets caught up in a wild adventure, enhanced by great extramarital sex, and it completely changes her life. That is the basic story of “Sandra,” and it is not a Lifetime movie but a new play by David Cale that opened Sunday at Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre.

Pre-pandemic, Cale had a big hit with another solo play, “Harry Clarke,” starring Billy Crudup. “Harry Clarke” worked, and worked very effectively, because Harry is an unreliable narrator whose true character slowly sneaks up on us.

Sandra, played by Marjan Neshat, is not only a very reliable narrator, she is grounded and dependable to a theatrical fault. We watch this woman not because her character fascinates but because of what happens to her. Sandra isn’t so much a character as she is a vacuum in her travels to Mexico to find a gay best friend who has disappeared there.

Director Leigh Silverman is very good at conducting her design team, especially Thom Weaver, whose lighting wraps Sandra in ever-changing shadows and patterns of light that tell us much more about the character’s state of mind than anything tangible in Cale’s text or Neshat’s performance. Also exquisite, Rachel Hauck’s set creates a floating space that attractively frames the actor with two large windows. And Matthew Dean Marsh’s music and Kathy Ruvuna’s sound design offer a thick atmospheric support. An odd component in the design is Linda Cho’s costume for Sandra. In the poster art, her outfit is slinky and revealing. On stage, that flowing blue dress has been replaced by a far more conservative brown wrap dress that is ill-fitting and renders the character downright dumpy.  

Cale gives Sandra all sorts of other characters to portray, and Neshat is especially awkward at delivering the male characters, most of which are clichés: Sandra’s missing best friend is a sweet innocent, her estranged husband is callous, her Italian lover is sexy, and an old gay roué she meets in Puerto Vallarta is flamboyant.

Near the end of her rough-and-tumble monologue, Sandra ends up in a very pretty place, perhaps one of the most gorgeous spots in the United States. Anyone who saw “Harry Clarke” might expect this female character to tell us, “And then I woke up.” Is the story that Sandra has been telling us just a dream or a fantasy? More likely, this title character is a spunky adventuress who in the end is no Miss Marple. And neither is Cale. Sandra solves the play’s big mystery by getting the culprit so drunk that he confesses to the crimes.

Agatha Christie is rolling over in her grave and she just bumped into Alfred Hitchcock.