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Theater review: 'Ordinary Days' at South Coast Repertory

January 10, 2010 |  3:58 pm

Ordinary days 1
Those who like to spot talented theatrical up-and-comers will want to check out Adam Gwon, a promising lyricist, a serviceable composer and a book-writer who’s better at conjuring up scenes than stitching them together.

Well, that’s rather a tepid note to begin on. To make up for it, let me tell you what genuinely excites me about Gwon’s chamber musical “Ordinary Days,” receiving its West Coast premiere in an extremely fine South Coast Repertory production.

The show is as green as an unripe banana in places, but Gwon reveals a gift for musicalizing everyday moments of emotional turmoil — those mini-breakdowns and almost-blowouts that nudge you to find if not a better life then a better way of coping with the one you’re stuck with.

Ordinary days ii “Ordinary Days,” which revolves around four Manhattan dwellers struggling to realize their dreams in the anonymous big city, is divided into segments in which old-fashioned New York neurosis gets spun into seemingly impromptu moments of confessional song. There’s a prosy feeling to many of these numbers, but most are marked by a tender authenticity, and when the subject is love, the quotidian language can turn briefly and arrestingly poetic.

“The city tends to make me feel invisible,” trills Warren (Nick Gabriel), a daffy creative type who hands out colored fliers to strangers with messages such as “Kindness is a virtue that is often times ignored.” His method of reaching out is about as subtle as his red pants and flamboyantly draped scarf. Pedestrians avoid him like a pothole, yet he clings to the hope that “maybe one by one by one by one/ This whole entire city’s/ Gonna look at me!”

Deb (Deborah S. Craig) is a high-strung graduate student, who appears to have been  in crisis even before she lost the notes to her embryonic thesis on Virginia Woolf — a disaster that has brought her to the edge of a complete meltdown. Her e-mail to her professor begging for an extension starts off in control before spiraling into sheer lunacy, one of the more amusing ditties in the show.

Jason (David Burnham) and Claire (Nancy Anderson) are a couple in their 30s who have moved in together and are immediately reaping the tumultuous consequences. This being New York, living space is a problem, and battles erupt over keepsakes that the other thinks should be put out with the trash.

To rekindle their affection for each other and a city that's becoming more and more impossible to handle, they follow the instructions of a magazine article listing the “Top Ten Things To Do In New York Before You Leave It.” They eat a bagel, root for the Mets, and take trapeze lessons. But it’s in Central Park when Claire is moved by the postcard skyline and sublime uneventfulness to ponder, “Why can’t this moment last/ Instead of slipping into the past?”

It’s a credit to Gwon’s honesty that he doesn’t end with quick-and-easy resolutions. Jason and Claire, whose relationship is fast-forwarded and rewound, continue to argue over such trivialities as Cabernet or Riesling, while Warren doesn’t appear to be making much headway in his battle against public indifference. (He does find Deb's stash of papers.) But all four are propelled forward by circumstances, which is another way of saying that they are forced by loneliness and fear to deepen their connections to others.

The subject matter is hardly groundbreaking (Stephen Sondheim and George Furth handled similar themes with far more complexity in “Company”), but the bright simplicity and madcap humor of “Ordinary Days” make it a small-scale pleasure. Gwon may have misstepped in elaborating a tragic back story for Claire. This late-inning development, beyond being sentimentally indulgent, seems to contradict the show’s central message that seemingly unextraordinary experiences can be extraordinarily rich in meaning and unrecognized beauty. Yet the juxtaposed travails of this quartet is quietly affecting.

 “Ordinary Days” is minor work, more interesting for what it augurs from Gwon. The score can seem at times like doodling (though no complaints about musical director Dennis Castellano’s piano playing), and it’s hard to tell whether next time at bat Gwon should choose to find a collaborator who’s a librettist or composer. But the production, meticulously directed by Ethan McSweeny, lavishes the same kind of care and attention that one would expect a major offering to receive.

Fred Kinney’s ingenious scaffolded set creates an abstract ambience filled in by Jason H. Thompson’s projection design, carrying us from Deb’s cramped studio to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with more agility than a punctual subway.

The cast is winning, and for the most part the performers keep in check any grandstanding impulses. Wittiest of all is Craig, who gets to bare her ferocious musical comedy instincts as a would-be literature professor who discovers that scholarship can never be an adequate substitute for companionship.

The lesson: Simple joys have a way of secretly expanding. If you go into “Ordinary Days” with reasonable expectations, you’ll likely come out feeling as if you’ve just had an experience that was more than a little special.

-- Charles McNulty

“Ordinary Days,” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Ends Jan. 24. $20-$65. 714-708-5555 or Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

Photos: Top: Deborah S. Craig and Nick Gabriel. Bottom: Nancy Anderson and David Burnham. Credit: Jamie Rector/For the Los Angeles Times

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