Michael Aronov, Viola Harris, Steve Kuhel, Faith Prince, Ana Reeder, Richard Thomas
Pulitzer- and Tony-winner Terrence McNally (Love! Valour! Compassion!, Master Class) is one of America’s leading living dramatists.
He has collaborated several times with Philadelphia Theatre Company in the past.
Theyve produced world premieres and Philadelphia premieres of several of his plays, so it comes as no surprise that theyve been given the opportunity to mount the first production of his latest, Unusual Acts of Devotion, originally intended to open last season starring film actress Kathy Bates (who dropped out because of illness, causing a delay in the production).
Taking place entirely on the rooftop of a Greenwich Village apartment building, Unusual Acts centers on a group of friends who gather together to celebrate the wedding anniversary of clarinetist Leo and his stay-at-home wife Nadine, tenants who were married on that very roof five years prior. Chick, a gay wannabe actor whos settled into a job as a Gray Lines tour bus narrator, and his friend Josie, a smoky-voiced aging hippie whos just gotten back from prescription drug rehab, are both in attendance. Also present is Mrs. Darnell, an octogenarian whos one of the buildings original tenants.
It turns out most of the characters have secrets many of them fairly shocking. Chick is still reeling from the suicide of his lover, Aaron. Leo has a secret sexual past. And Josie, the bad girl of the group, has more than her fair share of ghosts in her feathery closet. Her characters ethos is summed up when Nadine shouts down to her to come up to the roof for the party. When Josie asks her what to wear, Nadine shouts down, “Im sexy festive.” Josie replies, “Ill do sexy bipolar.”
Plenty of defining events for the group have happened up on the roof. Sex, death, a wedding, and plenty else are all part of its history. McNally understands the importance of the building and the city to the lives of his characters; some of the most passionate writing in the piece centers on their environs. A tenants roof is his birthright, Leo exclaims, explaining that, despite police attempts at clearing them away (its not technically legal to be on the roof of most New York City apartment buildings), people still reclaim their rooftop turfs time and time again.
Despite their differences and the intricacies of their lives, McNallys characters understand that theres a common thread that keeps them together their city. Even Mrs. Darnell, an ornery presence in the play, has a sense of pride in her neighborhood, standoffishly proclaiming, You didnt invent the village. We left it to you. Darnell is one of the most fascinating characters. Spending most of the time out of the audiences view behind the rooftop stairwell, shes always listening, even when the characters arent speaking to her or when they think shes fast asleep. She and Chick even practice a self-conscious exercise in soliloquy thats a fitful exercise on the limits of theatre.
Though a subplot featuring a mysterious rooftop killer (is he the Angel of Death?) who lurks in the background from time to time is misguided, McNallys talent in keeping us interested in the characters interpersonal spats lends the play an incredible richness. The twists and turns of the plot are enough to maintain sufficient dramatic intrigue. By the time the final revelations are made both joyful and devastating weve come a long way from the seeming tranquility of the initial celebratory setting.
Despite their journeys as characters, what makes them all so likable is also what provides the inspiration for the plays title their small acts of kindness toward one another. Leo rubs Mrs. Darnells feet to relieve her tension; Chick helps administer Leos insulin shots for his diabetes. Each of these rooftop denizens commits his or her own small acts of devotion. Love makes us do crazy things, I guess, Nadine conjectures early in the play. McNallys play backs up this idea throughout. Its a simple enough concept, but one that resonates nonetheless.
The cast here is uniformly excellent, especially Richard Thomas as Chick, who, caftan-clad, shows a distinctly unique side of his personality from his TV work. Broadway singer-actress Faith Prince is boozy and brilliant as Josie, and the rest of the cast have their moments as well, including Ana Reeder as perfect hostess Nadine (her dress practically matches the tablecloth) and Michael Aronov as strapping, strident Leo. Viola Harris as Mrs. Darnell also makes excellent use of her limited stage time, leaving quite an impression as an oft-neglected quasi-earth mother.
Theyre all supported by a well-oiled production that features fluid direction by Leonard Foglia and realistic, impressive sets by Santo Loquasto. Behind the everyday rooftop staples the charcoal grill, the sun chair, and the buildings looming water tower he places a realistic nightscape perfectly capturing the citys cascading buildings. Adding to the city atmosphere is realistic sound design by Ryan Rumery, whose helicopter and siren effects outshine so many other productions attempts at realistic urban soundscapes.
Its fitting that the play ends on an ambiguously optimistic note. Despite the characters ups and downs, theyre still inextricably linked to one another. While the play starts with The Drifters playful song Up on the Roof, it ends with Edith Piafs Non, je ne regrette rien, which translates as I regret nothing. Despite the ups and downs of ones life as sagely Mrs. Darnell ultimately concludes there is no use for regrets. Life is messy (and McNallys play can sometimes feel similarly so), and there are no easy fixes. Its important to take heed of it all, even the smallest bumps along the way.