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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Unusual Acts of Devotion
Philadelphia Theatre Company

Terrence McNally's latest collection of offbeat characters has found a very welcome home at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. Unusual Acts of Devotion may not be a groundbreaking work, but it's a very entertaining and enlightening look at different types of love—people who love each other, people who can't love each other enough, and people who simply love New York City.

Unusual Acts is set atop a Greenwich Village apartment building, on the roof (or "plage du tar," as one character calls it) where tenants go to cool off and hang out. A group has gathered there to celebrate the fifth wedding anniversary of Leo (Michael Aronov), a jazz musician and proud New Yorker, and Nadine (Ana Reeder), a transplant from Vermont. Their friends Chick (Richard Thomas) and Josie (Faith Prince) are guests, as is Mrs. Darnell (Viola Harris), a crabby old lady whom everyone hates but tolerates. Chick works as a tour guide for Gray Line and says he's satisfied with his life ("I have a job I love, I'm good at what I do ... is that the profile of a sad and lonely man?"), but Leo doesn't believe him ("Don't put words in my mouth. I didn't say sad."). Josie is just back from six months in rehab after a transgression that seems to have ended her teaching career; when Leo reminds her that she doesn't have a rap sheet, Josie retorts "I have something worse—everybody's disapproval."

Chick and Josie are old friends, and even talked about getting married once—but then Chick fell for a guy named Aaron, and Josie started putting emotional walls around herself. And even though Aaron's been dead for several years, Josie still can't forgive herself for the way she reacted when he died. Meanwhile, Leo and Nadine are expecting a baby, but their love story isn't a simple one. Their relationship with the older couple is full of intricate patterns of friendship, attraction and, ultimately, forgiveness. But while Chick and Josie mean the world to each other, forgiveness is one hurdle they may find impossible to surmount.

There's also a subplot about a murderer who is stalking the neighborhood, but it doesn't integrate particularly well with the rest of the show. When the killer arrives onstage, it's unclear whether he's real or some symbolic stand-in for the Grim Reaper. (The character's name isn't listed in the program, but an insert slip states that he's played by Steve Kuhel.)

In Unusual Acts, McNally returns to some of the stylistic motifs he's used in previous plays. The characters bond and argue over music (everything from Tony Bennett to Miles Davis to Edith Piaf), a theme McNally has used in works like The Lisbon Traviata and Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. The characters also speak in self-conscious soliloquies, just like the characters in Lips Together, Teeth Apart; Josie's reaction to the death of Aaron echoes a tragedy in that play. Above all, there's the need for humans to make some kind of deep connection, a subject McNally has explored in plays like Frankie and Johnny and A Perfect Ganesh.

Yet Unusual Acts doesn't feel like a retread. That's largely because the characters are not only fun to be around but continually reveal unexpected depths. It's also because the playwright's gift for funny (and often profane) dialogue makes even the most familiar message seem fresh. And director Leonard Foglia's relaxed, adroit staging makes the most of a talented ensemble.

Thomas plays Chick with a cocksure pleasure. Blunt when he needs to be and arch and flirtatious when he wants to be, he's clearly having fun. So are Aronov, as a tough Italian street kid who isn't all that he seems, and Harris, who is suitably cranky as the seen-it-all pest. And Prince is intensely poignant in a scene where she reveals the incident that caused Josie's professional downfall. She also shows off her masterful comic timing, and even gets a chance to warble a little Rodgers and Hart (which is a nice bonus). The only weak performance in the cast comes from Reeder, who delivers flat line readings and is unconvincing as a Vermont farm girl.

The technical aspects of the production are first rate, especially Ryan Rumery's sound design and Brian Nason's lighting (they teamed to create a neat special effect of a police helicopter passing overhead). Santo Loquasto's hyper-realistic set design convincingly recreates an urban rooftop, right down to the water tower and the finely detailed stonework.

"We can make each other happy so easily, and we seldom do," says Josie in a reflective moment. Josie is flawed but lovable ... just like her friends, just like her city and just like this play. Terrence McNally's valentine to New York City is sweet, passionate and very memorable.

Unusual Acts of Devotion runs through November 23, 2008 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $48 to $59, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-985-0420, online at www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org, or by visiting the box office.

Unusual Acts of Devotion
Written by Terrence McNally
Directed by Leonard Foglia
Set Design: Santo Loquasto
Lighting Design: Brian Nason
Costume Design: Jess Goldstein
Sound Design: Ryan Rumery
Dramaturg: Warren Hoffman
Stage Manager: Marti McIntosh
Casting: Telsey + Company

Cast:
Michael Aronov ... Leo
Viola Harris ... Mrs. Darnell
Faith Prince ... Josie
Ana Reeder ... Nadine
Richard Thomas ... Chick
With Steve Kuhel


-- Tim Dunleavy



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