The stakes have to be high, or there’s no play.
In drama, the characters feel the stakes are high and so do we — and we follow along, biting our nails. In comedy, the characters feel they’re high but we don’t — so we laugh at how much they’ll do for so little.
Somewhere, now premiering at the cozy Meta Theatre off Melrose, is something else. The stakes look plenty high to us — life and death, loss of several kinds — but the characters don’t seem to think so.
The play, a first outing by Australian novelist/screenwriter Antony J. Bowman, moves along briskly under the direction of Jeanie Drynan. The characters are clearly drawn, and interestingly revealed by very skilled actors. We connect with them and their situations, and we care.
There’s Michael (Josh T. Ryan), a rising architect who’s just died. He’s our friendly ghost narrator, unseen and unheard by the others. Back home after his funeral, he learns that his wife Vivian (Kristen Hansen) is pregnant with the child they’ve tried for years to have.
Consoling Vivian are her college friend Claudia (Melissa Kite), a high-end realtor, and Michael’s prim business partner Russell (Amir Khalighi). Also present are Michael’s comely protegée Nikki (Tammy Minoff) and his mildly autistic younger brother Albert (Willy Romano-Pugh).
As things unfold, lubricated by free-flowing liquor, we get to know these folks and their hopes. Claudia, despite her jet-set life, has always wanted a baby. Nikki’s been desperately in love with Michael (who had fantasies he didn’t act on). Russell can’t wait to replace Nikki with a comely male apprentice. And Albert catches more social and emotional cues than everyone supposes.
We also see their losses. Michael loses his life, his wife, his home, his future — and his illusions, as he hears what people say about him. Vivian loses her husband, the shape of her life — and, yet again, her baby. Albert loses his home and his big brother, the only person who sees him. Claudia loses her only confidant (though she may regain the link with Vivian), and Russell loses his partner, his mask of honesty, and all his friendships.
These are huge losses. The stakes are obviously very high here. Yet we see almost no suffering.
Except for Vivian, the characters react to these devastating blows as if they were slaps in the face. They take a deep breath, or pass out drunk, and then move on. Even Vivian’s grief at losing her husband, and then her baby, occurs mostly offstage.
Unseen and unheard, suffering in this play is obscene — in the original sense of the word from Greek tragedies, where things too awful to see were told about rather than shown.
In a sitcom or commedia dell’arte, there is no suffering. We laugh when stick-puppet characters get hit with a club or a pie and then rebound, unfazed. In a comedy of manners, we chuckle at the characters’ ability to keep up their social facades. But in Somewhere, the characters are well-enough drawn — and acted — that we can’t laugh. Instead, we’re left with a sense of discomfort, incompletion.
We know these people. These losses will cut deep, cost them dearly. And as things wrap up — too quickly, too neatly — we can’t believe what we’re seeing.
Somewhere enjoys high production values. Nikki Eva Kentor’s scene design makes thrifty use of limited space (though a smaller bed might help). Brian Barrazza’s lighting leads us smoothly among overlapped acting areas and through time. Katie Jorgenson’s smartly contemporary clothes locate this world and each character, from Claudia’s soignée to Albert’s shamble. And Edward Salas’ sensitive sound design quotes themes and passages from the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto at key moments, then pulls out threads and weaves them into a quietly moving background tapestry.
Then there’s the acting. In Michael, Ryan gives us a narrator we can trust and laugh and rage with, a ghost we can at times see through,
a man whose loves — and shocks — we feel. Hansen’s new widow Vivian draws our empathy, wobbling and stunned; we cheer her growing grasp on herself, and her ability to release anger at Nikki and Russell.
As Nikki, Minoff creates a young woman of intelligence and spunk up against more seasoned players, betrayed by her wayward heart. Kite’s Claudia, while instantly recognizable, suggests even more depth than the script reveals. Khalighi crafts a quietly protean Russell, flicking between bottom-line businessman and dishy gay friend, then collapsing among his deceptions. And Romano-Pugh’s diffident, immature Albert gains our trust as the play’s homme raisonnable, though he shatters glassware and social graces.
In the program, Bowman says his play was inspired by the question, “When I die, what will they say about me?” This leads into familiar enough theatrical territory, but Bowman has made a serious venture beyond the light comedy of Ghost (or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) by creating characters and conflicts that have weight.
What’s missing from Somewhere — despite its having been read and workshopped in London and Sydney — is the agony. Bowman’s characters have earned the right to suffer, have become real enough for us that we want to accompany them through the valley of the shadow. Somewhere is, in my eye at least, a drama, maybe even a tragedy — and swift, almost comic resolution robs it of its full life.
Somewhere, by Antony J. Bowman, directed by Jeanie Drynan.
Presented by the Crossbow Theatre Company at the Meta Theatre, 7801 Melrose Ave. (actually a few doors north on Ogden).
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 7:00 pm,
through Oct. 26.