Costuming an Homage to Life Among the Green Lawns

The program cover for the new Off Broadway musical comedy Suburb depicts a black-and-white photograph of a highway exit sign with the play's title written on it. And as presented in the musical, the fictional/representational “suburb” is many things — a destination, a state of mind, a dream. For the urban husband-and-wife lead characters, Alison and Stuart, “suburb” is a step back and a dream come true, respectively. Expectant mother Alison, who grew up in the suburbs, dreads reliving her mother's conventional life, while Stuart, who grew up in the city, buys into the idea of an idealized “green lawn” existence. The couple is joined by two older characters, Tom, the widower whose house Stuart would like to buy, and Rhoda, the brassy real estate agent handling the sale of the house. A four — person ensemble, a Greek chorus for the mall set, backs the four leads.

If Alison fears that suburbia represents a return to ordinariness, she needn't: the suburbs as conceived by costume designer Jan Finnell are replete with, yes, argyle sweaters, loafers, aprons, and khaki pants — but with a twist. Finnell created exaggerated, often bright and colorful versions of suburban wear for the ensemble and more realistic but stylish outfits for the leads. Says Finnell, “From the beginning we wanted to make sure that the four ensemble members were quite different from the principals. The ensemble is definitely dressed in what I would call mall style.” Each ensemble member is also given a basic costume, which they add to as needed to transform into various townspeople: a policeman, a Brownie leader, a deli owner, and so on. Says Finnell, “It is an homage to suburban life, but not a mean-spirited one.”

Alison and Stuart, however, are dressed as the young urban couple they are. Finnell, who lives in Manhattan, notes that she sees their equivalents “every day where I live on the Upper West Side.” Alison is an editor, so she is dressed in suits and blouses that befit her vocation. She stands in contrast to Stuart, who is “a little more of a dreamer.” Finnell continues, “Where she is much more businesslike and to the point, he is dressed in a man's palette but softer and very youthful — somebody who has perhaps not faced up to his responsibilities.”

While working on Suburb, Finnell discovered just how many animal and reptile prints exist in the world (from shoes to bags to nightgowns to blouses to pants to underwear to baby clothes). For Rhoda, the loudmouth with a heart of gold — and a wardrobe that Finnell notes would be right at home amid the mansions of Dynasty — such prints became her trademark (from subtle beige and black zebra stripes to hot pink reptile designs). She stands in serious contrast to the dependable and solid Tom, who wears earth-toned textured clothing.

Suburb demanded a great deal of legwork; Finnell hit the sales at various New York City department stores, consignment shops, and discount stores to bring the show in under budget. She also experienced a costume windfall in the form of a major donation of discarded designer duds from a soap opera she used to work on (Finnell declined to name which one).

Suburb ran through March 25 at the York Theatre at Saint Peter's in the Citigroup Center in New York City. Jennifer Uphoff Gray directed the piece, with scenic design by Kris Stone, and lighting design by John Michael Deegan.