Harry's Friendly Service

Larry John Meyers, Daryll Heysham and Edward James Hyland
Rob Zellers' Harry's Friendly Service is a bit of a cast of characters in search of a play. Zellers has sketched some interesting personalities, placed them up in a setting ripe for conflict, with backstories alluding to family secrets and long-held resentments—but the payoff we're set up to expect just never happens. The Public's world premier production doesn't elevate the play above the sitcom level—in fact, it's hard to resist thinking of "Chico and the Man" or "Sanford and Son" when looking at James Noone's authentically detailed set and listening to Harry grouch and grumble.

In 1977 Youngstown, Ohio, in the midst of a steel workers' strike and generally poor economic conditions, Harry just wants out. He runs a gas/car repair station, but let's use the term "runs" figuratively. He no longer waits on customers or answers the phone. Harry is tired, cranky and unhappy with life. He hopes to sell the station and escape to what he thinks will be a more pleasant climate. But, as you might expect if you're from the northeastern Ohio/western Pennsylvania area, there are a few "wiseguys" who aren't going to let that happen. To add to Harry's discontentment, he gets a surprise visit from his 20-something daughter Emily, whom he sent to an orphanage in a convent when she was eight years old. She's awfully perky and forgiving given those circumstances, and is on the precipice of deciding whether or not to become a nun (without giving it all away, she does not fall on the Sisterly side by any means). Emily reminds Harry of the source of his unhappiness, the death of her mother (one of the plot points that doesn't pay off).

Like most cranky middle-aged guys, Harry has friends who are good (and good-humored) and will stand by him no matter what. Tina runs the burlesque house next door (with experience); John lost his parents at a young age and can't seem to find success in his fledgling law career (he has a habit of working for free, plus he's an alcoholic); and Skiddie is an old friend who seems to be there because a fourth is needed for pinochle. The backstories for these pals are too sketchy to make them seem real, a real missed opportunity. Zellers provides banter for the group, but the jokes are predictable and land heavily.

Along with Zellers' writing, Edward James Hyland does succeed in developing a pretty rich character in Harry. He doesn't crack jokes—a good choice in presenting a believable character—and truly seems haunted and sad. We have to believe he was once a kind and genial person, but even so, Skiddie and Tina must really be loyal friends because Harry seems to have been tough to get along with for a very long time. Though well acted by Brooks Almy, Tina is a bit too caricaturish to fit with the drama side of the story, but I'd go see a different kind of play about Tina and her burlesque house in a minute. Larry John Meyers and Joel Ripka as Skiddie and John, respectively, give workmanlike performances in roles that don't offer enough opportunity to do more. Tressa Glover is just too cheery (and cheerleadery) as Emily, who is very childlike in an adult world. Nicely performed small roles are presented by well-cast Alex Coleman and Daryll Heysham.

Director Ted Pappas could have guided a few of theses performances in a slightly different direction, but his hands are a tied with the material. After the well-crafted The Chief, written with Gene Collier, Rob Zellers is not showing quite the same level of richness with these fictional characters. Not that it can't be done—he has created characters we want to know more about. But, right now, the "more" he gives us isn't quite enough.

Harry's Friendly Service continues through June 28 at the O'Reilly Theatre. For performance and ticket information, call 412-316-1600 or visit www.ppt.org or the box office.

Photo: Pittsburgh Public Theater

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-- Ann Miner

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