When the Lights Went Out

Show #69: Fly by Night, TheatreWorks, July 16.
Show #62: Tigers Be Still, SF Playhouse, June 25.

Wade McCollum, Keith Pinto and Rachel Spencer Hewitt in Fly by Night. Photo by Mark Kitaoka.

By Sam Hurwitt

The Bay Area is being given quite an introduction to the work of playwright Kim Rosenstock right now, with the world premiere of her musical Fly by Night being unveiled at TheatreWorks and the West Coast premiere of her comedy Tigers Be Still playing at SF Playhouse.

Rosenstock coauthored Fly by Night with Will Connolly and Michael Mitnick. Their credits aren’t broken up by task, but I assume Rosenstock to be more of the book writer and the gents to be more of the songwriters. Beautifully realized in a tight and lively debut directed by Bill Fennelly, the bittersweet romantic comedy takes place over the span of one year, from November 1964 to 1965. It’s based around the great Northeast blackout of the latter year, but it feels like a spoiler even to say that, because the blackout isn’t so much the setting as one of the turning points, and the effect it has on the characters is profound.

Our unlikely leading man is Harold, a nebbishy New Yorker who ekes out a meager existence as a sandwich maker and tries by night to write songs on his acoustic guitar. He’s played by Ian Leonard with a shy, forthright charm that makes you feel invested in Harold and frustrated with his tunnel vision. The play starts with his mom’s funeral. Harold’s father, Mr. McClam, is left to mourn his Cecily. Left entirely to his own devices, because his son keeps avoiding his calls, he spends his days listening to an old record of La Traviata, and in fact he takes the phonograph player with him like a security blanket wherever he goes. Sensitively portrayed by James Judy, sad old Mr. McClam seems to get short shrift through most of the story, but he gets some marvelous moments toward the end.

Harold’s humdrum life is upturned by the arrival of two sisters from South Dakota. First he meets the lovely Daphne, who just wants to be a Broadway star, and Rachel Spencer Hewitt makes he impatience feel electric. When Daphne meets Harold, the two have a sweetly awkward little romance.

But Daphne’s mom has made her take her sister Miriam with her to New York, wanting the run of the house to herself. Charmingly personified by Kristin Stokes, Miriam is amusingly content with being a waitress, honestly feeling that working in a greasy-spoon diner that serves breakfast all day is the greatest human endeavor she could possibly aspire to. She’s also an astronomy enthusiast, and as sweetly silly as her song about trusting stars seems on the face of it, Miriam’s simple zest for life couldn’t be more endearing. While Harold and Daphne immediately hit it off in an opposites-attract kind of way, Harold and Miriam’s mutual lack of ambition in some way makes them better suited than he is with the fame-chasing Daphne. Unfortunately Miriam and Harold don’t meet and realize they may well be soul mates until Harold and Daphne are already engaged. However this is going to end, it’s not going to be well.

The small cast is excellent all around. Keith Pinto has an amusing turn as the colossally self-involved playwright Joey Storms, who promises Daphne that his self-produced musical imitating every other hit musical is her ticket to the big time. An understatedly hilarious Michael McCormick keeps stealing the show as the crabby sandwich shop owner Crabble, whose only bright spot in life was World War II, when he worked as an air traffic controller.

With a deep voice that belies a superb falsetto, Wade McCollum is a hysterical standout as the bald, suit-clad narrator, who starts in Rod Sterling mode but shows great sympathy, nuance and some very funny storytelling strategies. From time to time he’ll start a scene only to stop it, saying we’re getting ahead of ourselves, then go back to a much earlier point in the story. He also has some priceless cameo roles in the story as a beatnik open-mike emcee, the sisters’ mother, and an outrageous Gypsy fortuneteller who loads Miriam up with signs and portents.

The sly jumps in chronology are only part of what makes Rosenstock and company’s script so delightful. It’s packed with heartwarming character moments and laugh-out-loud lines delivered perfectly. When the fortuneteller chases Miriam down and says she’s a hard woman to find, she exclaims, “But I work down the street!And you’re a psychic!”

Dane Laffrey’s black-painted set is mutable and well-crafted, with the band visible in a recording studio in the rear and other rooms emerging when necessary. Tanya Finkelstein keeps it simple with the costumes for the most part, appropriate to the characters, but with some great ‘60s dresses for the more fashion-conscious Daphne.

The songs are charming and well-crafted throughout, without either standout numbers or not-so-hot ones. Deftly played by a four-piece band directed and orchestrated by keyboardist Michael Pettry, they’re folk-influenced and beautifully pared down. If this musical really takes off, which I think it should, it would be a shame for it to swell into some full orchestral thing that would lose the simple magic of the songs. Despite a surprisingly downbeat ending, it’s a luminous, hilarious and heartbreaking musical that you don’t want to stop.

Melissa Quine, Jeremy Kahn and Rebecca Schweitzer in Tigers Be Still. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

The characters in Tigers Be Still know a thing or three about heartbreak. Until recently all three women in Sherry’s house were completely paralyzed by depression, and she’s the only one who’s snapped out of it. Her unseen mother, a former prom queen, has gained a lot of weight from the medication for an autoimmune disease and refuses to come out of her bedroom or allow anyone in to see her, communicating only by phone. That included Sherry’s father, who finally gave up and left months ago.

A last-minute replacement for Aaron Loeb’s postponed Alcestis, Amy Glazer’s brisk and lively West Coast premiere staging of Tigers Be Still at SF Playhouse was hastily cast and mounted, but you’d never know it from the knockout performances.

Like Fly by Night, this play centers around two sisters, and Sherry’s sister Grace has been dumped by her cheating fiancé, so she spends her days on the couch drinking, crying, drunk-dialing, and watching Top Gun over and over. She only leaves the couch to steal things from her ex’s apartment, from his karaoke machine to his Chihuahuas, yapping away from the basement they’re locked in.

Rebecca Schweitzer makes an awfully amusing drunk as Grace—which is notable enough, because stage drunkenness is often done badly even in otherwise good shows—giving the sense that she’d be a live wire if she wasn’t such a train wreck who considers having sex with the elderly mailman just to keep herself occupied. “There’s often a very fine line between the stupidest thing you can do and the sexiest thing you can do,” she says.

Sherry, on the other hand, is bursting with energy and enthusiasm. It’s her first day of her new job—her first job ever, in fact—and she’s determined to make the most of it. She’s all too aware that until very recently she was as inert and weepy as everyone else in her family and never got out of bed, but now it’s a bright new day and she refuses to succumb anymore. Sherry has scored a job as an art teacher at a local high school, with the help of a phone call from her mom, who used to date the principal back when they were in high school. “This is the story of how I stopped being a total disaster,” Sherry says into the purloined karaoke machine at the beginning. “I hope this will be an inspirational tale of triumph.”

As enchantingly perky as she is, what makes Melissa Quine’s Sherry such a strong performance is that you can see that she’s hanging on by a thread. She’s determined to believe in herself despite her deep-rooted insecurity and naïveté, having never had a job or a boyfriend.

She’s also agreed to take on the principal’s son Zack as her first art therapy patient, although Zack’s dad only told him he was giving him a new job as Sherry’s teaching assistant. Zack has anger management issues that mostly come out in getting into confrontations with managers and costumers in his revolving-door jobs as a drugstore clerk. But Jeremy Kahn’s Zack doesn’t seem at all like your standard-issue angry young man. Tremendously convincing and likeable as a troubled teenager who always says exactly what he thinks, he has a priceless air of bewildered incredulity that makes him a perfect foil for Sherry, because he has no qualms whatsoever about saying that her home is a madhouse. But really Zack is depressed too, because his mother died recently, and his dad isn’t doing much better.

Remi Sandri is very earnest and sympathetically awkward as Joseph, the principal, who couldn’t be more different from the vice principal Sandri played recently in TheatreWorks’s The North Pool by Rajiv Joseph (another playwright shared by these particular two theaters). Joseph is trying to reach out to his son by trying his hand at all the cooking and other domestic tasks his wife isn’t around to do anymore, but Zack is unresponsive to the point of hostility, and Joseph can’t communicate well enough to bridge the gap. He wants badly to be a good dad, but just can’t quite find it in him. There’s also an escaped tiger roaming around out there somewhere, and the principal tries to enforce a buddy system to keep the students safe despite knowing laughably little about tigers.

Bill English’s pleasant living and dining room set (strewn with Grace’s junk-food detritus) serves as both households and the school without a lot of scene changes. Costumer Miyuki Bierlein provides realistic, super-casual clothes for Grace and Zack and prim pink getups for Sherry. Brendan Aanes’s sound design is drenched in ’80s culture, as the sisters listen to early Madonna, Simple Minds, and of course Berlin in the one-movie marathons.

Rosenstock’s dialogue sparkles throughout, brought to life fantastically by Glazer and her cast, and the script feels always sensitive to its troubled characters while mining their misery for delicious humor. Like Fly by Night, Tigers Be Still is a terrific comedy about sad, lonely and dissatisfied people, proving that even crippling depression can be hilarious. If these two plays teach us anything about Kim Rosenstock, it’s that we’re going to want to see much more of her work whenever and wherever possible, because she’s a formidable talent to watch.

Fly by Night runs through August 13 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto. http://theatreworks.org

Tigers Be Still
Through September 10
SF Playhouse
533 Sutter St.
San Francisco, CA

EDITED TO ADD: Bill English takes over the role of the principal in Tigers Be Still for the last three weeks of the run.
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