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NEW YORK – Paul Weitz’s Lonely, I’m Not joins the growing ranks of stunningly mediocre works that land major New York productions by virtue of their celebrity playwrights – actors or film directors whose names look good on the subscriber brochures of non-profit theater companies, and who bring cachet to the casting process. An indie film manqué, larded with cutesy screen tropes in place of anything emotionally substantive, this trite play about damaged people might qualify as a melancholy rom-com if it had an ounce of genuine wit or charm.
In the leading roles, Weitz has recruited two actors who have worked with him onscreen to greater reward, Topher Grace (In Good Company) and Olivia Thirlby (Being Flynn). He also has a solid ensemble that includes stage stalwarts Mark Blum and Lisa Emery, and an in-demand Off Broadway director, Trip Cullman, who manages to put some punch into most plays he touches. But in his fourth outing produced at Second Stage – following Show People, Privilege and Trust – Weitz delivers material as phony as it is empty.
Staged on a sterile minimalist set by Mark Wendland, the production is tricked out with giant upper-case words in neon – like LOUD or INTENTIONAL or TRAINWRECK – that spell out a key note of each brief scene. Missing among these indicators, however, are signs saying DULL or SUPERFICIAL or BANAL. Thirlby’s character, a fiercely driven business analyst named Heather, who also happens to be blind, explains at one point how she navigates her way around an unfamiliar room: “You just have to get that first thing. Locate that. Just start somewhere. And everything else falls into place.” There’s no colorful signage advertising METAPHOR at that moment, but few will require it.
Spiky, guarded Heather and burnout Porter (Grace) are both fumbling in the dark looking for that first thing. His beard and the comforting crocheted afghan he hides under tell us at a glance that Porter is depressed. Once a ruthless corporate ninja who blazed a dazzling professional trail right out of Harvard and was supposedly living the dream, he hasn’t worked in four years, lost his wife and can barely purchase a latte without a mini-meltdown. “It was dead,” is how Porter describes his former life in the play’s prosaic shorthand. “It didn’t exist. I saw that it didn’t exist.” His big implosion, we learn, involved lying on the floor in his own urine during a Citicorp presentation. He also has recurring nightmares about his terminally ill mother and cries after sex. Naturally, Heather is hooked.
How these two help each other and whether or not they end up together are questions not explored with sufficient nuance to supply meaningful human insights. The actors are fine – no more, no less. Thirlby at least does a physically convincing job depicting the careful concentration with which a sightless person negotiates space. But their characters are barely more than outlines. Heather flips back and forth between chilly self-possession and emotional receptiveness. Porter is a miserable puppy, but quick with a deadpan crack.
What is this play about? The soul-sucking toxicity of competitive corporate life? The injustice of a professional world in which women – and women with handicaps even more so – have to work twice as hard for half the recognition? The transactional nature of affection? The cocooning prison of depression? The primal need for human contact? It’s about all that and nothing.
Played by a multitasking supporting cast, peripheral characters come and go to illuminate the protagonists. Emery makes Heather’s post-hippie mother both needling and protective, while as Porter’s Latvian housekeeper, she states what’s obvious to everyone else by telling him he’s lonely. Blum plays Heather’s boss, whose own limited vision is a parallel underlined without subtlety; as well as Porter’s father, a crooked opportunist who surfaces only when he needs something.
Maureen Sebastian has sweet moments as demanding Heather’s worshipful assistant. But she gets stuck with more demeaning labor as Porter’s ex-wife – in her slinky leopard mini-dress and gladiator heels, she’s a sexual manipulator one minute and a needy bore the next. Ditto as Heather’s ingratiating lesbian roommate, all compulsive behavior and shrill upward inflections. Given her determinedly independent nature, why Heather would even have a roommate, let alone this drip, is unclear. Also mystifying is how or why morose Porter’s friendship has survived post-college with the aggressively upbeat dude (Christopher Jackson) who set him up with Heather.
There are funny lines here and there that nudge the play into sitcom territory, and scene-break music that plucks from the standard indie-movie bag with what appears to be imitation Sufjan Stevens, Iron & Wine, DeVotchKa and so on. The story’s pared-down episodes seem conceived not in theatrical terms but cinematic ones, with stage simulations of jump cuts and split-screen, and even a subtitled sequence in a noisy club. Absent, however, is the emotional texture of Wietz’s best films, such as About a Boy or In Good Company.
This is by no means the only facile play to be staged by a top-tier Off Broadway company during the past season. But somehow they grate more when there’s nothing beyond the famous name to warrant the attention. They must be especially galling to the talented playwrights whose manuscripts get buried in slush piles while they dream of being produced.
Venue: Second Stage Theatre, New York (runs through June 3)
Cast: Topher Grace, Olivia Thirlby, Mark Blum, Lisa Emery, Christopher Jackson, Maureen Sebastian
Playwright: Paul Weitz
Director: Trip Cullman
Set designer: Mark Wendland
Costume designer: Emily Rebholz
Lighting designer: Matt Frey
Sound designer: Bart Fassbender
Projection designer: Aaron Rhyne
Presented by Second Stage Theatre.
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