Review: ‘Brooklyn Laundry’ at Northlight Theatre is a truthful, moving story of a couple

As they well know at the Hallmark Channel, anytime you are watching a romantic drama — play or musical — one thing matters above all else: you have to pull for the central couple.

That might sound obvious but it’s a lot more complicated than it appears, and involves writing, direction and acting all acting in sync. You have to believe the fictional pairing will keep each other safe and that they will be able to hold it together once a plot far simpler than real life comes to an end. I’ve sat there and imagined a fictional couple’s future more times than I care to recall, often with anxiety or disbelief.

So it’s no small praise when I say that Northlight Theatre’s production of John Patrick Shanley’s latest play, “Brooklyn Laundry,” as directed with sensitivity by BJ Jones, has a couple in which you can believe.

They’re both quirky, wounded souls. Owen (Mark Montgomery) has back pain, past sexual trauma and a stable but mostly dull life running his little clutch of Brooklyn dry cleaners. Fran (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason) is a warm-centered young woman from a family filled with both health and financial insecurity.

Both of Fran’s sisters, Trish (Marika Mashburn) and Susie (Sandra Delgado) are in crisis. Owen has crises of his own, but they’re most internal. Fran and Owen meet at the counter over her bag of laundry after he notices her load is below the minimum weight, the bag being filled with clothes only from one lonely person.

The main issue of the play, which is just 80 minutes long, is to what extent we have the right to pursue our own happiness when faced with, well, so as not to give things away, I’ll say hefty long-term family responsibilities. That’s something many of us wrestle with all the time. Shanley (“Doubt”) also is exploring the role of honesty in relationships, a long-established theme of his work. Fran can’t decide how much to tell Owen about her life. Too much and he might get scared away. Too little and then he might rightfully feel aggrieved at being kept in the dark. Most of us have been there, too.

I always think Shanley is at his best in two-handed scenes (“Doubt” has some of the greatest ever written), and here there is an especially moving scene between Mashburn and the consistently superb Slaughter-Mason that just rings true from beginning to end. You do have to buy an age difference here that’s perhaps a bit larger than ideal, given that it is never discussed in the script, but that’s not a big problem when you have lead performers as engaging as these two.

I didn’t see “Brooklyn Laundry” in New York but from the reviews, it appears that the production leaned more into broad, outer-borough comedy, so to speak, than does this quieter, Chicago-style staging. Even here, I think another step in the direction of realism would have been merited. The more mannered, jokier scenes don’t work as well the ones that just feel sweet and true.

But, overall, this is a lovely little production that clearly was moving its audience and making a good few Northlight fans wipe their eyes. Shanley has a particular affection and affinity for ordinary people, the huge swath of Americans just trying to figure it out, keep the wolf from their door and find a little love and companionship for their unremarkable lives. To say that the American theater needs more writers like him these days is to understate.

I left musing over one other big theme here: whether life can be said to be hard work rather than a quest for happiness. It can be both, you’re likely thinking, but can it? For everybody? In the end here, in the kind of play that writers of a certain age are especially able to pen, Shanley seems sure about just one truth: everything is better shared or as Tony Kushner once said to me, the lowest indivisible human unit is really two.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

Review: “Brooklyn Laundry” (3.5 stars)

When: Through May 12

Where: Northlight Theatre at the North Shore Center for the Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Tickets: $49-$89 at 847-673-6300 and