A crying baby pulled from a kitchen cabinet, a woman abruptly exiting a house via a window and a banged-up finger that turns into bark: The new play “Daphne” is chock-full of magical surprises and mystical transformations, but its surreal elements leave the audience with too many unanswered questions.
In the play, which opened on Monday at the Claire Tow Theater, Daphne (Jasmine Batchelor) has recently moved in with her girlfriend, Winona (Keilly McQuail) — an abrupt change that has Daphne’s friends concerned. And with good cause: Daphne is living in a big, mysterious house in the middle of big, mysterious woods with a controlling partner who disapproves of her leaving or receiving guests. After an accident leaves Daphne with an injured finger, she begins a botanical transformation like that of her mythological namesake.
Daphne and Winona’s toxic relationship seems to be the trigger for Daphne’s transformation, as is the case in the Greek myth, when Daphne, a river nymph, prays for help escaping the predatory god Phoebus Apollo and is turned into a tree. If “Daphne” is trying to create a sort of mythological fairy tale, then the play’s other fantastical details only introduce more confusion: Winona’s peculiar, unseen bird named Phoebus; the neighbor (Denise Burse) whom Winona warns that Daphne is a home-invading witch; a human face found in a cabinet door.
Scenes with Daphne’s visiting friends (played by Naomi Lorrain and Jeena Yi with a delightful, though out-of-place, sitcom-style humor) seem meant to provide some context about Daphne’s world and life outside her new home, but they do neither.
Presented by LCT3, Lincoln Center Theater’s programming initiative for new artists, “Daphne” is the professional stage debut of Renae Simone Jarrett, a member of E.S.T.’s Youngblood collective for early-career playwrights. Jarrett’s script is spare, and the setup is initially intriguing, but ultimately too obtuse. The direction, by Sarah Hughes in her Lincoln Center Theater debut, accentuates the dark whimsy of the script but doesn’t provide insight into what those whimsical elements are meant to express. The same for the cast: Though they dutifully inhabit their characters, they cannot make them feel more than ephemeral.
McQuail is especially captivating as Winona. Her languid way of moving, her dreamy delivery of quixotic musings and her aloofness — with a sharp edge of intention underneath — draw the spotlight from Batchelor’s steady, though flatter, Daphne. Is Winona the big bad of the story, or just the relationship? Is there some greater evil? Is Daphne losing her sense of reality, or is this a manipulation caused by Winona, or by the suspicious neighbor next door? Without clear stakes, it’s difficult to invest more deeply in the story.
The production also withholds any specifics that would ground viewers in a particular setting. Scenes begin and end with snappy lighting transitions (by Stacey Derosier) between a cool daytime light and a warm nighttime glow, so Daphne’s world feels as if it exists in a timeless bubble. Maruti Evans’s rustic set design, a living room and kitchen of a home lined with wallpaper consisting of giant fall-colored leaves, also feels hemmed in, though the couple are meant to be living in a large, haunting abode.
“Daphne” is so good at creating a sense of its main characters’ insularity that the production also feels confining, stuck within a set of indecipherable metaphors. But unlike Daphne, who is transformed by the end of this 90-minute contemporary myth, we’re left exactly as we arrived.
Through Nov. 19 at the Claire Tow Theater, Manhattan; lct.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.