Combine the Netflix women's prison comedy "Orange is the New Black" with Jean Genet's disturbing, role-playing drama "The Maids" (which was recently revived in New York with Cate Blanchett) and you've got "And I and Silence," a new social-minded drama by playwright Naomi Wallace, which marks the start of her residency at Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre Company.
Wallace depicts two very poor young girls -- Dee, who is white, and Jamie, who is black -- who meet in prison and struggle against the confining conventions of 1950s society.
The 90-minute play switches back and forth between scenes where they are still teenagers in prison, and others set nine years later when they are living in a ramshackle apartment and desperately looking for work. Two different pairs of actresses are used to portray them during prison versus after prison.
They carefully practice how to be a maid of proper attitude and behavior -- how to be graceful, like a bird -- through elaborate role play. They also discuss how to react when their boss makes a sexual advance -- grab your bucket and run the hell away.
Wallace makes the despaired argument that, even after serving their sentence, her characters never really gain any freedom, which leads to a feeling of hopelessness.
Although the play does culminate in a dark and dramatic act, not very much occurs in terms of plot development. Also, the pattern of shifting again and again between the two time periods produces a kind of monotony.
Caitlin McLeod's intimate production benefits from an atmospheric set design, in which a grimy living space is surrounded by expansive metal scaffolding and stairs, and the psychologically-tinged, sexual and violent interplay between each pair of actresses.
If you go: ‘And I and Silence’ runs through Sept. 14 at Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St., signaturetheatre.org