Unusual Acts of Devotion
Terrence McNally has written a sweetly effective play about loneliness in the city and how people cope with it, playing through June 28 at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse. Writing sweetly about loneliness is admittedly a difficult thing to do. Most songs about loneliness are bitter ones, unless they are also about love (or they're bitter because love has gone away and now they're lonely). So, how can loneliness be sweet?
Mr. McNally's play, which he has titled Unusual Acts of Devotion, makes it so by showing how residents of an older (some might say "traditional") apartment building in Greenwich Village have bonded by turning the building's rooftop into a common living room.
The building's occupants are sort of a one-of-each variety. There's Nadine Choate and Leo Belraggio (Maria Dizzia and Joe Manganiello), a young couple who are celebrating their five-year anniversary; Chick Hogan (Richard Thomas), a somewhat schlumpy-looking middle-aged gay man who works as a Gray Line tour guide; Josie Shelton (Harriet Harris), also middle-aged and schlumpy, who has just returned from a stay in rehab for an addiction to prescription meds; and Mrs. Darnell (Doris Roberts), an old lady who uses the rooftop but who is also mysterious and socializes only when she wants. The rest of the time she sleeps, or pretends to be asleep.
The 100-minute, no intermission play is set on a hot August night. Nadine and Leo have taken over the rooftop (a magnificent set design by Santo Loquasto), displacing Mrs. Darnell, to celebrate their anniversary. Chick comes home from work, and the couple quickly invites him to the party. When they all learn that Josie has just returned from rehab, an invitation is issued, and reluctantly accepted, as well.
Small acts of sweetness abound. The dinner invitations, including one to Mrs. Darnell, are spur-of-the-moment but sincere. Nadine cooks in her hot kitchen and schleps a feast up the stairs for everyone. Chick combs through his meticulously organized CD collection to find an Edith Piaf recording that Mrs. Darnell keeps requesting. Leo, who is perhaps too sweet and has trouble managing his diabetes, is helped with his insulin shots more than once.
The rooftop is not a refuge from the city but a part of it. A police helicopter hovers overhead, shining down spotlights. There is a summer power failure. The rooftop community rails against a "peeping Tom" in a building across the way (perhaps a sly joke by Mr. McNally, as he indicated in an interview that he was inspired to write this play by observing a similar rooftop community from his Manhattan apartment). And, a dark figure (Evan Powell) stealthily overlooks the group from the building's water tower.
Mr. McNally deftly manages this integration between character and city so that the action seems natural and unfolds in real time. Yes, this is a "relationship play" and there will be confrontations among the characters and secrets told before the evening is out. And each character will have an opportunity to feel and respond to the loneliness that grips all of them, sometimes in surprising ways (I will be particularly interested in seeing how gay male audience members respond to the play's developmentswhile the play features a gay character it is not one of Mr. McNally's "gay" plays). But, the confrontations and truth telling will be so almost matter-of-fact that the audience may have trouble knowing just what happened by the time the play is finished. At the least, the play should provoke some interesting conversations on the way home from the theatre.
Director Trip Cullman's production focuses on the play's real-time aspects and provides plenty of breathing room for events to unfold. The cast responds as an ensemble with plenty of allowances for nuanced work by each member. Ms. Roberts' "New York old lady walk" is as about perfect as I could imagine, Mr. Thomas and Ms. Harris admirably disappear into their schlumpiness (the estimable costume designer is Jess Goldstein). Mr. Manganiello both embodies his Italian hunk and plays him against type in delightful ways. Ms. Dizzia has the most thankless role but she displays appropriate amounts of energy, sweetness, and panic, as required. Even Mr. Powell, who spends most of his time in the shadows, manages to create and maintain a level of suspense that keeps the proceedings from going soft.
There are enough odd loose ends in the plot (which is part of what you'll be talking about on that trip home) and enough projection problems, brought about by a combination of the direction and actor miscalculation (this is a play where every line counts), to keep me from pronouncing this production a masterpiece. But Mr. McNally is an Old Master of contemporary American theater, and this sweet slip of a play shows us why he has earned that honor.
Unusual Acts of Devotion through June 28 at the Mandell Weiss Theatre, on the campus of the University of California, San Diego. Tickets ($30-$65) available by calling (858) 550-1010, or online at The La Jolla Playhouse website.
La Jolla Playhouse presents Unusual Acts of Devotion, written by Terrence McNally. Directed by Trip Cullman, with Scenic Designer Santo Loquasto, Costume Designer Jess Goldstein, Lighting Designer Ben Stanton, Sound Designer John Gromada, and Stage Manager Kelly Glascow. With Maria Dizzia, Harriet Harris, Joe Manganiello, Even Powell, Doris Roberts, and Richard Thomas.