by Renee Calarco
Produced by Charter Theatre
by Tim Treanor
I recommend that you interrupt your reading of this review, call Charter Theatre or go to their website, and make reservations to see Short Order Stories right away. Now. I’ll explain later.
The theater critic, in his wisdom and dignity, is commissioned to explain the playwright’s purpose, whether the production achieves it, and, if not, why not. This, in turn, helps the discerning reader determine whether she wishes to spend an evening at the theater in question. But one need not fully understand the laws of gravity to observe an apple fall from a tree. Every so often a play is so good that lovers of quality theater will love it; further explanation is unnecessary. Olney’s magnificent The Heiress was like that last year; this play, while without Olney’s fabulous production values, gives similar satisfaction.
Renee Calarco, hitherto a specialist in short plays, has woven together four interlocking stories in a garment so seamless that the intermission seemed arbitrary. Lou (Andy Brownstein) and Fran (Lee Mikeska Gardner) are driving their troubled daughter Jenn (Anne Veal) from Buffalo to SUNY-Binghamton; their old neighbor, the recently-divorced Chuck (Timmy Ray James) is taking his son Evan (Michael Grew) to Cornell. Separately, they stop at Larry’s, a greasy spoon in Horsehead, New York, where their reluctant waitress, Paula (Kerry Seymour) serves the food which the somewhat overwhelmed Peach (Chris Stezin) cooks up for them.
That’s it for setup; everything else is character-driven. Lou is a burly, blunt-spoken workingman; Fran is obsessed with cleaning up other people’s messes. (She carries around her own napkins for polishing up the silverware). Jenn, shrouded in her black hoodie, has a history of anorexia and carries as much venom as a spitting cobra. The driven Chuck tries to manage his life over a cell phone, unsuccessfully (“we’re in Horsehead,” he tries to explain to his incredulous ex-wife). He also tries to buy his son’s affection. Evan isn’t having any of it. Paula, wrapped up in a love affair with another woman, must decide whether to have a child, and her dear friend Peach has a decision of his own to make.
To tell you more about the plot would be to undervalue the play, because it is not a show which pretends to resolve the great problems of the day, most of which are unsolvable. Instead, Calarco, writes knowingly about the misapprehensions between men and women, between parents and children, between the wealthy and the poor, between the conventional and the exotic. All the characters are human, sometimes painfully so. “Lou says I’m self-defecating,” the oblivious Fran explains to Chuck. It’s a funny line, and a heartbreaking one, since we know how deeply it wounds Fran when Lou tries to correct her fractured Spoonerisms.
Calarco uses a clever device to great effect to drive out portions of the story. In the first scene, Lou, Fran and Jenn sit at a table in the foreground and Evan and Chuck are at a background table; Paula and Peach appear periodically to lay down food and refill coffee. Later, the diner is reversed and Evan and Chuck are in the foreground. The scene is replayed from their point of view, with Lou, Fran and Jenn in the background. In the second Act, we get the scene from Paula and Peach’s point of view. We learn their dilemma, and see the other ones – now familiar to us – going on in the background.
It helps, when trying to pull something like this off, to be the sister of the great Joe Calarco, whose direction of last year’s hit Urinetown won him the Helen Hayes Award. Calarco directs this work seamlessly, getting superb performances from the ensemble cast. It almost seems a shame to single out one actor from a cast this good, but Lee Mikeska Gardner, as the anxiety-ridden Fran, managed to play a deep, rich, bizarre character full throttle without once going over the top.
Short Order Stories runs at Theatre on the Run, 3700 S. Four Mile Run, Arlington, Thursdays through Sundays until October 21. All shows at 8; there are also Saturday matinees at 3 pm. Tickets are $20 on Thursdays and Sundays and $25 otherwise. For reservations, call 202.333.7009 or go to http://www.chartertheatre.org/