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Review: 'Unusual Acts of Devotion' at La Jolla Playhouse

June 11, 2009 |  3:00 pm


On a sweltering summer night, the tenants of a Greenwich Village apartment house gather together on the rooftop to celebrate the fifth wedding anniversary of two of its residents. This being a Terrence McNally play can mean only one thing: a punch bowl of snappy laughter spiked by intimations of mortality.

In "Unusual Acts of Devotion,” which is having its West Coast premiere at La Jolla Playhouse, the author of “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” and “Love! Valour! Compassion!” offers yet another group portrait in which love and death, desire and dissatisfaction are viewed from long and short distances — as though McNally were alternately using a microscope and a telescope to find out what lies in his characters’ hearts.

Actually, it’s the playwright’s own heavy heart that seems to be under investigation. For despite a hardworking cast that features the vivid presences of Doris Roberts, Richard Thomas and Harriet Harris, the play, directed by Trip Cullman, seems suffused with emotions that preexist the stagy characterizations and hackneyed setup.

Unusual acts iiThere’s no doubting the genuineness of McNally’s elegiac melancholy, but it’s not quite earned dramatically, and the comedy is more formulaic than usual. In fact, there are times when you might reasonably mistake the writer for a sitcom hack rather than the wit behind that uproarious study of urban loneliness, “The Lisbon Traviata.”

Everyone in “Unusual Acts” is a type burdened with a tangled history. There’s the old crabby Italian American widow, Mrs. Darnell (Roberts), who’s like the ghost of Greenwich Village past. Chick (Thomas) is the gay, recovering-alcoholic NYC tour guide, who’s still reeling from his lover’s suicide. Josie (Harris) is the bipolar English teacher who seems to have taken Tennessee Williams too much to heart. She has just returned home from her latest breakdown and, with too much wine in her, slurs such pearls of wisdom as, “If I've learned anything, it’s that the cup of human kindness isn’t nearly deep enough.”

And then there’s the celebrating couple, Nadine (Maria Dizzia) and Leo (Joe Manganiello), who think of themselves as “quasi hippies.” She’s a sweet-natured artist who feels self-conscious about how much she adores her husband; he’s an Italian American musician with diabetes, who’s trying to be a one-woman Romeo. A strapping fellow who can use all the coddling he can get, he’s too squeamish to give himself insulin injections, and when Nadine isn’t around, he drops his pants and bends over for Chick’s all-too-willing alcohol swab and injection.
In McNally’s rooftop world (vividly conjured by scenic designer Santo Loquasto), nobody is a soap opera unto himself. The neighbors all have semi-secret links to each other. So not only have Leo and Josie once made love, but Chick and Josie were seriously considering marriage, until Josie introduced Chick to Aaron, the love of his life. She turns out to know more about why Aaron jumped off the roof than she has let on, just as Nadine knows and doesn’t mind that her husband took mercy on the resident Blanche DuBois, offering up his hunky body to Josie in an encounter that broke the outdoor chaise.
It’s a frisky building. Even Mrs. Darnell, when she’s not snoozing or foretelling the future, begs Leo to rub her legs for her. “And not too hard,” she reminds him. “You know how I like it.”

There’s a retro quality to “Unusual Acts” that makes it seem like a work from the un-air-conditioned 1970s, except that McNally was writing more adventurous plays back then. The drama is born out of a willful nostalgia for the dwindling era in which the author came of age. As Leo says, in a native New Yorker’s apostrophe to his hometown, the building’s “Village vibes are stronger than the present yuppie scum’s persona. We obliterate them.”

But the truth is that McNally isn’t observing real-life people. He’s recycling audition monologues from his earlier efforts. There’s a “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” tenderness to the way these emotionally wounded Village denizens struggle toward a recompensing intimacy while preserving a measure of their blessed big-city anonymity. But the playwriting craft is so lax that it often seems like a young man’s play saddled with an older man’s sentimental heart.

Cullman’s production hasn’t figured out how to maneuver the cast around all the dramatic contrivances. Exits and entrances are challenging enough in a work that is never quite sure just who should be included in a scene. But there’s a prowling figure (Evan Powell) up on the water tower, who represents either a fumbling attempt at magical realism or the Perry Street murderer. The guy manages to remain unspotted by a circling police helicopter, which is probably because only those flirting with death can catch a glimpse. 

McNally has built his golden reputation by fusing comedy and tragedy in psychological studies that are enlivened by the snap, crackle, pop of farce. “Unusual Acts” reveals the same sensitivity — but in a communal snapshot that comes off as a fake. 

-- Charles McNulty

"Unusual Acts of Devotion," La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. 7:30  p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends: June 28. $38-$65. (858) 550-1010. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

Photos: Top: From left: Doris Roberts, Richard Thomas, Harriet Harris, Joe Manganiello and Maria Dizzia. Bottom: Roberts and Manganiello. Credit: Craig Schwartz