Hope and Gravity, playing through May 20 at Plays and Players Theatre, starts and ends with the story of a mysterious elevator crash, a disaster that eludes scientific explanation.
In between, in just under two hours, local playwright Michael Hollinger presents a latticework of characters and situations whose interrelationships gradually become clear. The nine vignettes (of uneven quality and interest) that compose the play unspool out of chronological order, with three men and two women playing nine characters in both an unnamed American city and a Cleveland hotel room.
Both the nonlinearity and double-casting make piecing together the plot a bit of a struggle. But that's also the fun of a piece that zigzags from tragedy to slapstick and back again. This Philadelphia premiere marks Hollinger's playwriting debut with the comedy troupe 1812 Productions. Producing artistic director and company cofounder Jennifer Childs directs a strong cast with broad strokes and high energy, nailing the laughs and most of the darker moments.
This particular work, Hollinger says in the program notes, began as an attempt to weave together existing 10-minute plays. In the end, he discarded most of the old work, writing new vignettes to create a more coherent narrative.
One of the influences he cites – there's a brief reference in the play itself – is W.H. Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts," a classic poem about human indifference, the mundanity of tragedy, and the role of art. The myth of Icarus, central to the poem, also unifies Hope and Gravity, whose characters experience a variety of falls, both real and metaphoric.
One scene turns on the plight of a poetry professor, Douglas (a poignant performance by David Ingram). The author of a masterpiece, "Spring Remembrance," he has seemingly reached a creative dead end. But is it possible that an accident that's sapped his memory has also rejuvenated his art? Facing his limitations in the company of two of his students, Jill (Jessica Johnson) and Steve (Sean Close), Douglas explicates the play's title and theme: "Gravity. The tendency for even the lightest things – hope, joy, love – to come crashing back to earth."
The show's comic apogee is the vignette "Self-Help." Peter, a womanizing dentist (Gregory Isaac, alternately seductive and doubled over in pain), and Barb (also Johnson), a receptionist with a discolored tooth, confront their clashing afflictions to hilarious effect.
Another couple is Tanya (Suli Holum), a woman desperate for a child, and her husband, Hal (Isaac), who is giving his psychotropic meds to his cat. Holum also plays Nan, a nurse with a pronounced Philly accent, who is stepping out on her husband, Marty (Ingram), an idiosyncratic elevator repairman.
Jorge Cousineau's set design, incorporating his trademark projections, is distinctive and thematically apt. It situates us in an elevator moving, with apparent randomness, from floor to floor. The doors open to reveal nine different settings, among them a nurse's office, a campus green, a hotel room and, finally, an elevator itself.