BWW Reviews: Time is Out of Joint at City Theatre's HOPE AND GRAVITY
In the program notes for Hope and Gravity, playwright Michael Hollinger notes that the structure of his play arose from writing unconnected one-acts and then dropping that conceit by melding them together into a cohesive whole, much like Stephen Sondheim and George Furth did for Company. Two scenes in the final draft stick out to me, at the time of this review, as reflecting that mentality and thus summing up the whole evening. Both were comedic scenes with clever punchlines, but worlds apart in style and intent. The later of the two scenes was a brilliant farce in miniature, with one of the best bits of slapstick and mistaken identity I have seen in a long time. The earlier scene, on the other hand, was funny to me, and to my poetry-loving companion, but relied on a lot of literature-major in-jokes to really land. I enjoyed both scenes, and the play as a whole, but I couldn't help but wonder if it was too busy trying to be all things to all people to really find its footing.
The play, in a nutshell, is the story of an elevator accident, told non-sequentially. In the first scene, news of an elevator accident across town leads to a routine elevator check in a high-rise, trapping a group of strangers together in an elevator. As the scenes play out of order (check your playbill for numbering if you're wondering how things fit together), the circumstances before and after the accident become clear, and the group of strangers we have met begin to look more connected than we would have believed at first. Certain recurring phrases, ideas and concepts- often called "arc words" in media analysis- appear in almost all the stories, tying them together conceptually. Watch for the recurrence of a poem called "Spring's Remembrance," the Virgin Mary, the word "miracle," and an unpleasant dental condition, and you'll see what I mean.
While certainly enjoyable, and not at all hard to follow, I confess to feeling like Hollinger was torn between comedy and drama, and between farce and highbrow humor, in creating this show. The comedic, but more serious, dramas of poet Douglas (played by John Feltch) and his students, Steve and Jill (Federico Rodriguez and Robin Abramson) have a weight to them, and an intellectual tone, which sets them apart from the farcical bed-hopping humor of amoral dentist Peter and his lover Nan, (Daniel Krell and Rebecca Harris), or the good-hearted lunacy of superstitious husband Hal (Daniel Krell again). Running jokes about T.S. Eliot and Walt Whitman don't necessarily belong in a different show than an extended gag involving an electrical prod to the rectum, but they are bound to feel like a different show nonetheless.
The two adult men of the program, Daniel Krell and John Feltch, stand out as the show's main attributes, both playing dual roles. Both of Krell's roles, as mentioned above, are essentially comedic, and he differentiates the smarmy, guilty Peter from the nervous, kindly Hal with ease. Feltch, however, balances two seriocomic roles that couldn't be farther apart. When first introduced as elevator inspector Marty he is pleasantly annoying, the kind of person one can easily see growing on you even as he grates on your nerves with his constant elevator safety facts and figures. Later, his poet-turned-professor Douglas is funny, but endearingly sad as he copes with an unfortunate medical condition with strange side effects. Tying the two adult men in the cast together is Rebecca Harris, who plays cheating school nurse Nan with vigor and heart, but is also left with the straight-man role of Tanya. Though Tanya plays an important part in the plot as it unfolds, the role of dramatic center in a farce, even a highbrow one, is rarely the juiciest.
The young man and young woman of the cast, Federico Rodriguez and Robin Abramson, are competent but fare less well. Abramson is quite funny in her scene with Krell's Peter, but fails to find sufficient characterization to differentiate idealistic poet Jill from realist Barb. Too often I was watching her hair and costume changes to tell one character from the other. Rodriguez, on the other hand, plays his character relatively well, but his character often seems like he stepped out of a different play, maybe even by a different author. Full of poetic musings and extended metaphors, Steve does not feel of a piece with the rest of the evening's characters and dialogue. Additionally, as the only actor not given a dual role, Rodriguez has no chance to flex his acting muscles and show his range or comedic skills beyond playing "the young man." In a play so built around duality, and the links between the seemingly highbrow and the seemingly lowbrow, this seems like a dramaturgical misstep.
While my companion and I both enjoyed the play a great deal, I couldn't help but notice that we are both former students of poetry. Just about anyone who doesn't take themselves too seriously to have a good laugh will enjoy much of the evening's low comedy, but will the plights and foibles of literary types trying not to sell out or run out of ideas do as well alongside them? Perhaps the willingness of audiences to take to both groups of characters will determine the future of this piece. After all, Cheers did very well, and Frasier is just as well remembered, but shared lineage aside, they certainly weren't the same show.