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Theater Reviews: The Stage Dive Weekend Roundup

Lonely I'm Not
Second Stage Theatre

Cast List:
Mark Blum
Lisa Emery
Topher Grace
Christopher Jackson
Maureen Sebastian
Olivia Thirlby 
Production Credits:
Trip Cullman (Director)
Mark Wendland (Scenic Design)
Emily Rebholz (Costume Design)
Matt Frey (Lighting Design)
Other Credits:
Written by: Paul Weitz

Lonely I'm Not (at 2nd Stage through June 3)

Paul Weitz’s Lonely I’m Not is precisely the sort of play I’m wired to despise: the tale of a mopey male genius/fuckup — damaged by the “wrong” sort of success, emotionally compartmentalized, sexually desolate yet unquestionably beddable — written in small, cartridge-like scenelets so slick and modular, they feel like they’re being ejected onto the boards by an offstage Gillette.

A great many of these plays seem to spring from the iPads of Hollywood screenwriters, and I’ve come to regard them with suspicion: Weitz’s own Trust, for example, I found muddled, miscast, and ill-tempered, a dark tale about privilege and domination awkwardly rewritten as some sort of icky wish-fulfillment scenario. That was a play with a lot on its mind but no real moral or philosophical spool to wrap it all around; the show lacked the courage to be the pitch-black downward-spiral it wanted to be.

So I was absolutely blindsided by Lonely, with its Yoda-ish title syntax and surprising heft. Written in the Weitzian style — mild, charming quip-couplets cut with strictly regulated doses of sentiment, happenstance, and melodrama — the show is genuinely appealing. It’s a bit too smooth and tidy to stay in your system for long, yet Lonely entertains, engages, and seduces with skill, thanks in large part to its director, the more-and-more impressive Trip Cullman (Assistance), and its toothsome leads, Topher Grace and Olivia Thirlby.

Grace is Porter, a former finance “ninja” sidelined after a mental breakdown. (His father’s a fraudster, the criminal kind; he was the Wall Street variety, and the realization blew his brainbox.) Since then, this ex-wunderkind had been spending a lot of time face down on the floor of his apartment, a position he prefers because it means he can’t get any lower. Porter’s set up on a blind date with a blind woman (Thirlby), and the play consists almost entirely of their courtship, relationship, and hardship, as old wounds open, crazy parents surface, and workaholism intrudes.

It’s your basic coming-back-to-life arc, delicately underwritten and romcom-schematic in places, as two dented souls find each other in the Starbucks jungle of modern upper-middle-class America. But it’s never the least bit gooey, and Grace transfers his wry puppy-dog nerd to the stage with great confidence and authority: He’s a smart stage performer who understands how to amplify (but never overamplify) his energies to fill a room. In his capable hands, Porter’s various layers of defense are shed until the last veil drops, and we’re left with total honesty. For an actor known chiefly for his ironic eye-rolls, Grace is remarkably trustworthy. He’s nearly matched by Thirlby, whose part is a bit more of a composite: she’s blind, she has father (and fatherless-ness) issues, she’s a grind who’s killing herself to smash through two glass ceilings at once. Thirlby juggles all of this with aplomb; her sheer unflappability helps sand down many of her character’s rougher edges.

The chief star is Cullman, who once again demonstrates an impressive ability to match the high-speed emotional transactions of driven young comers — people with nervous systems like overloaded power grids — with designs, temperatures, and tempos that fit like skinny jeans. There’s rarely any fat on a Cullman production, and Lonely is no exception: Designers Mark Wendland (set), Aaron Rhyne (projection), and Matt Frey (lighting) help him create a world that reflects both the sterility of Porter’s world and the vivid lacerations of color that criss-cross it. Here’s a moody young ex-Gekko you’re actually rooting for: Sarcastic I’m not! (Being!)

Sophie Gets the Horns (at The Incubator Arts Project at St. Mark’s Church through May 20)

Adriano Shaplin and The Riot Group (Pugilist Specialist, Freedom Club) return with this modest mini-tragedy about life in a liberal-arts university in the late nineties. Suburban ingenue Sophie (Kristen Bailey) is generally insecure: about her well-readness, about her well-roundedness, about her sexual inexperience, about everything. She’s a little bit in love with her troubled, Plath-obsessed roommate (Mary Tuomanen), who looks and acts like a female Cobain, with occasional overtones of Courtney Love. These kids seesaw wildly between slacker evasion and fatal self-seriousness, but for some, the stakes are higher than for others. Will Sophie go topless for a “feminist” theater installation? Will dork-king Bernardo (Shaplin) be anyone’s “first”? Who’s a real lesbian and who isn’t?

Anyone who went to college in the pre-9/11 era will appreciate Riot’s delicately self-mocking approach to that twilight of the old era, back when collegiate alienation wasn’t something you posted on your Facebook page and Kicking and Screaming was every poet manque’s social Vulgate. (The show is based loosely on the company’s actual formative experiences.) The approach, once again, is a pop version of the Theater of Cruelty, where characters address the audience more than they address one another, and what’s spoken is often undercut immediately by a dance-like physical vocabulary that tells the real story. It’s a great piece of black box theater, with everyone each in his or her own black box.

Photo: null/Joan Marcus