By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
I say something, you respond, I respond, we talk, we go on and on, we get off into tangents, we lose a thread of thoughts when something triggers us to take a new path, to pursue another idea. That’s a conversation.
It works in real life.
Not so much in theater.
Normal conversation can, in fact, can be deadly in theater, where the trick is to make focused dialogue sound normal. So after the first 15 minutes of John Rosenberg’s new play, Automatic Fault Isolation, I was wondering when thing would come into focus after a long round of drifting conversation by characters — a man who may or may not be an astronaut and a woman who may still be a girl.
The play opened Saturday and is being performed on weekend afternoons at Papermill Theater in Kensington, where Rosenberg heads the company called Hella Fresh Theater. The plot finally did come into its own way too late in the 75-minute production, as compelling in its last 15 minutes as it is aimless in its first 15.
In any case, the bulk of the production is well acted. Rosenberg, who also directed, plays an employee of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where Automatic Fault Isolation takes place in 1965. The title refers to an actual space engineering project.
Anna Flynn-Meketon portrays the high-school girl — at least her character seems to be one — who has lured him to a motel, and Sean Cummings solidly plays a character who comes into play during the last part of Automatic Fault Isolation.
Rosenberg plays his role as a befuddled adult who doesn’t know how to relate to the girl he is with. That’s apt — he’s written her as tempestuous and senseless, with the skills of a manipulator far beyond her age. In Flynn-Meketon’s portrayal, she is shrill enough for her dialogue to sometimes garble in her higher decibels, but she plays the part for all it’s worth.
What she cannot overcome is her too-old appearance: Flynn-Meketon looks far more like an adult than a kid. Yet the way Rosenberg wrote his play, the audience must guess for a long while at her relationship to this outer-space worker, and unless she’s obviously much younger than the guy, we haven’t a chance of being anything but confused.
The play works after it gets to the point — that the girl has an ulterior motive in asking him there. It also gets steadily better as it picks up tension, but I never could figure out what would attract even a very lonely adult to this capricious, dangerous kid. She’s far too much of a risk for a tryst — especially in the South and in the ‘60s — and, as Rosenberg writes the character, the mouth you have to put up with is not worth so much as a kiss.
Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.
Automatic Fault Isolation: Presented by Hella Fresh Theater at Papermill Theater, 2825 Ormes St., through June 24. Tickets: $10. Information: www.thepapermilltheater.com.