Stage preview: Underlying dissonance key in Quantum's 'Parlour Song'


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In its never-ending quest to match show to space, the nomadic Quantum Theatre company has settled temporarily in the wood-paneled shell of the Pittsburgh Burger Co. at the Waterfront in West Homestead. The defunct restaurant includes crossbeams perfect for lighting and a cozy environment for the three actors in Jez Butterworth's "Parlour Song."

Regular Quantum patrons take note -- the company will unveil cushy chairs as an answer to patrons' No. 1 complaint, having to do with sore backs and such.

It's nice that the seating will be comfortable, because the British playwright doesn't provide an easy path through his darkly humorous relationship tale.

‘Parlour Song’

Where: Quantum Theatre at the former Pittsburgh Burger Co., 201 W. Waterfront Drive (across from AMC Loews), Waterfront, West Homestead.

When: Friday through Nov. 24. 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday; no performance Nov. 3.

Tickets: $36 Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday; $41 Friday; $46 Saturday; and $49 opening night. 412-362-1713 or www.quantumtheatre.com.

When "Parlour Song" made its way to New York in 2008, The New York Times' Ben Brantley used words like "smart, rueful and sensual" to describe the story of a suburban British couple, Ned and Joy, and their cheery neighbor, Dale. The UK's Daily Telegraph had previously declared it "blissfully funny."

Ned is a husband and a demolitions expert who outwardly seems to be holding it all together, but his inner churnings might make him a candidate for antidepressants -- if his job didn't demand an unimpaired mind and steady hand. Cameron Knight, who lends his bass voice to Ned, has been digging beneath the character's surface and wondering why he, like the buildings he demolishes, has not exploded from the pressure of long held-in emotion.

"A sneaking suspicion that was confirmed with Ned is this underpinning of anger," Mr. Knight said. "He seems like such a dope at the read, so it's like 'Poor guy.' [But] he's really working very hard to appear that way. The stuff he covers is dark. It's like oh, God, this poor man. If he could actually take pills ... he really needs to. How he's coping is remarkable to me."

A word that comes up often with all three actors is enigmatic. Throughout "Parlour Song," the trio on stage note the disappearance of possessions large and small, and scenes build one upon the other but not in chronological order.

Pittsburgh native Sarah Silk plays Ned's wife, Joy, whose name does not reflect her growing discontent.

"Even though we talk about how enigmatic it is, the more I work on it, the more it becomes clear to me," Ms. Silk said. "My character, Joy, is particularly enigmatic because of her lack of presence on stage and her lack of saying things as openly as the other two characters. The more we go through this rehearsal process, it's clear to me that she is just like every other woman. And that is part of the process as an actor."

"She's also the linchpin of the play, which I didn't realize," added Quantum newcomer Brendan McMahon.

Dale, the handsome, affable bloke next door, has baffled Mr. McMahon from the start. The character weaves a good tale and seemingly is a support system for his good friend Ned. He seems like every neighbor you'd love to have -- fun to be with, to talk with. "Of course, he's having sex with your wife, which is no good," Mr. McMahon said. "But he feels really guilty about it."

He and his co-stars laugh at that, but at the start, Mr. McMahon wasn't at all sure what he was getting into, other than it was a Butterworth play. He and Mr. Knight came to the playwright's work through "Jerusalem," the vehicle for Mark Rylance's second Tony Award and a best play nominee. While in grad school, Ms. Silk used a monologue from "The Night Heron" to work on her cockney accent.

"Honestly, on the first read [of 'Parlour Song'], I had no idea what was going on. I was like, 'What? Where are they? What are they doing? Why is this stuff happening?' I didn't get any of it, but I loved it. It's kind of remained a puzzle. It's a really interesting work in that way because it's this beautifully poetic puzzle that we keep taking apart and looking at pieces and going, 'How do these pieces go together?' "

One thing that was never in doubt was that this decidedly British story, with telltale dark, dry humor, would require the three American actors to employ accents.

"The themes definitely go all over the Western world, but it definitely is a British play. ... Having the accent has been a total joy. It's been like a spaceship that gets you into the character," Mr. McMahon said.

Mr. Knight said he loves that "Parlour Song" is a three-person play and not a large ensemble, "so it really allows us to rip this play apart and build on it."

Having director Martin Giles, designer Tony Ferrieri and the rest of the creative team on site through most of the rehearsal process has been a gift to the actors.

"When you're in a character and you are looking for their story, their humanity, their arc, and then trying to serve the entire play, it's so great to have other people's voices chiming in and saying, 'Have you thought about that thing?' And it's like, 'Oh, oh, right,' " Mr. Knight said.

When all else fails, leaning on each other and Mr. Butterworth's attention to character have been the actors keys to deciphering "Parlour Song."

"It's amazing that the writing is so human and so grounded and the characters are very consistent," Mr. McMahon said. "So it's really easy to make choices ... because we can't really know. The chronology is just not there. In part, it is nice to not know."

"This play really lends to living in the non-answer," said Mr. Knight, as his co-stars shook their heads in agreement.

Of one thing all are sure: The play will provoke debate long after the audience arises from Quantum's new chairs and heads out into the strip mall that could be the stomping grounds of a Ned or a Joy or a Dale.

"That is the mark of a really beautiful play," Ms. Silk said. "You can connect with it, your interest is piqued and you are entertained, but at the same time, you have questions raised that you can't necessarily answer, so you debate them."


Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960.

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