Icarus and NASA faced the same problem — gravity, defined by one of the characters in Michael Hollinger’s new play as the “tendency for even the lightest things — hope, joy, love — to come crashing back to earth.”
The image of the boy who flew too close to the sun is one of several obvious metaphors in “Hope and Gravity,” getting its premiere at City Theatre, the third debut work here by the Philadelphia-based playwright and Villanova University professor.
Those sides of Mr. Hollinger — the artist and the academician — occasionally bump up against each other in this semi-serious comedy of banters. Much of his dialogue is serve-and-return or straight line and punch line, gently humorous and smart. There’s no chance of strong, angry, passionate words erupting to agitate the play’s bemused, low-key character.
Instead, “Hope and Gravity” is a satisfying, crowd-pleasing end to City Theatre’s season, a play of little challenges, content to hit singles instead of swinging for the fences. It’s a puzzle play with nine scenes in two acts, but not in chronological order. The program offers a kind of guide to the timing by numbering the scenes, but we have to move the pieces around in our head as the play proceeds to finish the puzzle.
Cleverly titled “Out of Order,” the opening segment (No. 6 in your program) finds four of the play’s nine characters aboard an elevator. Three of them — creative writing students Steve (Federico Rodriquez) and Jill (Robin Abramson) and Peter (Daniel Krell) who has a plane to catch — are at the mercy of Marty (John Feltch), a maintenance man who’s putting the car through an “RFT” or Randomized Floor Test.
The topic of their conversation is yesterday’s fatal elevator accident, a fall of nine floors that killed a woman and severely injured a man.
“It was a miracle,” blurts Marty, but a “tragic” one because the crash occurred despite all safeguards, its cause a mystery, although clearly gravity was at fault.
Mr. Hollinger then bounces us from one pivotal episode to the next — throwing a few clues here and there, the biggest one being something called “fate” — which move the characters into position by play’s end.
Mr. Krell changes nicely from the smooth-talking amorous Peter to the disturbed vice principal Hal — he believes in signs — who flubs his key assignment of providing a sample for his wife’s infertility doctor. Rebecca Harris plays that woman, Tanya, with the right note of desperation, aware that her biological clock is running low on batteries.
Then something hilarious happens. It’s a reveal that shall remain unrevealed because it’s central to the action, but it catches school nurse Nan, also Ms. Harris, and receptionist Barb (Ms. Abramson again ) off guard.
The professorial side of Mr. Hollinger pops up in the character of Douglas (Mr. Feltch), once a renowned poet and teacher of Steve and Jill, now content to limp along, his tenure status secure. Mr. Rodriquez has the apple-polishing student down pat.
Douglas, you see, is the elevator survivor whose damaged brain leads him to start writing again, but his poems are only copies of works by Eliot, Whitman and Frost. The scene plays funnier than it sounds as the playwright mocks contemporary “po biz” and writes a mediocre, derivative work that he brands Douglas’ masterpiece.
In the program notes, Mr. Hollinger wants us to ponder Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts” as the play’s touchstone, but he understands that audiences don’t want Auden or even Frost. Instead he gives them jokes and physical comedy — the “Self Help” scene is hilarious — and a dollop of poignancy and hope, of course, to send them home happy.
There’s nothing wrong with happy.
Artistic director Tracy Brigden directs briskly and gives the fine cast lots of shtick to work with, although there are too many “air quotes” of waggling fingers. Ms. Abramson and Mr. Krell show a real talent for comedy while Mr. Feltch and Ms. Harris move easily between their several characters.
Eric Shimelonis’ original music and Andrew David Ostrowski’s lighting bring polished touches to this production.
If you are considering “Hope and Gravity,” no need to look before you leap. You’ll be fine.
Retired Post-Gazette book editor Bob Hoover occasionally reviews theater for the newspaper.