Players navigate comic possibilities in `Arrivals//Departures'
Comedy can be such an elusive commodity. These days we're trafficking in crudity and crassness on the big screen and numbing our brains with sitcoms so bland we laugh only to relieve the boredom.
Maybe that's why ``Arrivals//Departures", the new comedy from the Shotgun Players, is so refreshing.
In some ways, this one-act play is as formulaic as a sitcom: a quirky dad and his quirky adult children all attempt to find love and connection in a small northeastern city. Neuroses are fuel for punch lines, and with some jokes you can almost hear the studio audience laughing on the soundtrack.
But this endearing comedy, created by Katie Bales (director) and Daniele Nathanson and Tania Katan (writers), has something most TV fodder doesn't: kindness mixed with hope and respect for human frailty.
That's not to say this is a cuddle fest at San Francisco's EXIT Theatre, a brick-walled space with seats at bars that feels more like a comedy club than a theater.
Clearly, director Bales, her six-member cast and her designers - most notably Joseph Cairo on sets, Alex Lopez on lights and Chris Keyes on sound - want this to be hip comedy with an edge.
This is the second new play produced by the Berkeley-based Shotgun Players. Last year's ``Swimming in the Shallows" was also an edgy comedy that had great affection for its characters. If this is going to be Shotgun's new-play niche, hooray.
Too much new work is so overrun with self-importance that it forgets to be entertaining. So far, this blight has not plagued the Shotgun Players.
Much of ``Arrivals//Departures" takes place in a small airport, and the play overworks its themes of people not knowing where they're going and carrying around excess baggage - at one point, two characters even spend a dysfunctional date riding around on the baggage conveyor.
But the actors bring just the right lightness of touch to deflect any heavy-handedness that might begin to weigh on them over the course of the play's swift 85 minutes.
Gene Thompson is Ira, a retired cab driver whose flight attendant wife left him and his two children years ago. He's gruff and gnarly and sits at home in his easy chair pretending he's still behind the wheel of his taxi. When his kids want to talk he makes them sit on the couch behind him as if they were his passengers. ``Get in!" he bellows.
Ira's kids, son Nick (Ryan Gowland) and daughter Felix (Jennifer Taggart), acknowledge how much their father's single parenting has warped them, but they're not bitter.
Felix, a lesbian, has a history of going from one relationship to another. ``I've been in one long 15-year relationship with 8 [1/2] people," she laments. On the plane to visit her dad, Felix meets Rose (Lindsay Anderson), a beautiful woman who shares her affection for flowers with no scent and marzipan.
``Have you ever had an epiphany?" Felix asks. ``Does that have champagne in it?" Rose responds. ``Just kidding."
The two women begin a turbulent relationship that ends with a hilarious confessional in the supermarket.
Nick, a frustrated filmmaker who still lives at home, announces arrivals and departures at the airport. That's where he meets Tori (the enchanting Amanda Duarte), a lost woman who demands that Nick date her.
On their first date, Tori requires that they practice their first fight, and when she's not confusing Nick, she's taking classes from a wacko drill sergeant (an underused Douglas Nolan) who teaches ``Survival on the Urban Tundra."
All of these relationships, including Ira's pending engagement with a woman we never meet, self-destruct with only some possibility of repair.
The play's ending still feels uncertain. Felix is worthy of a more resonant resolution, and the final scene focuses too much on one couple rather than on the bigger picture, which is what the play has come to be about.
There's a terrific scene near the end that demonstrates the peculiar charm of ``Arrivals//Departures."
Ira and the kids are dining at Denny's, waiting for significant others who never arrive. Felix attempts to offer some comfort, and her brother snaps, ``Why do you always say everything will be OK?"
``Because one day something will be OK," Felix shoots back. ``Until then I'm hopeful."
Forget "Seinfeld" repeats or "Ally McBeal" and see this Shotgun Players world premiere, written by Tania Katan and Daniele Nathanson with Katie Bales, instead. Sure, it has the same short-attention-span scenes and "why does my love life suck?" themes, but it's a lot funnier and, hey, it's live. Felix has a whirlwind affair with sexy Rose while staying with her cranky father, who is set to marry a woman he only sees on Sundays. His son -- who announces flight departures -- has a fling with the neurotic Tori, who negotiates relationships by what she learns in survival classes taught by the ultra-militaristic Jared. This play is pulled off by a talented cast, centering around the great chemistry between Amanda Duarte and Ryan Gowland and Jennifer Taggart and Lindsay Anderson.
The printed program imitates safety instructions given out on airplanes. Along with the expected cast and crew information, it shows you how to open emergency doors, and warns that the production contains "brief smoking, mild neurosis, erratic behavior, and no intermission." Critics never mention program design, so let's fix that right here: The program for Arrivals/ Departures is clever, and sets the right tone for a warm, witty new comedy from the Shotgun Players.
Developed in workshop with the director, playwrights, and a well-used cast, the play is centered around one family's attempts at romance. Felix (Jennifer Taggart), a lesbian with a tendency to flee cities altogether rather than risk running into an ex-lover at the grocery store, is flying home to visit her romantically eccentric father, Ira (Gene Thompson), when she meets someone interesting on the airplane: the beautiful, unhinged Rose (Lindsay Anderson). Meanwhile, Felix's sarcastic brother, Nick (funny Ryan Gowland), gets hijacked into a bizarre relationship of his own. While announcing flight information at the same airport gate where their mother left them, he's accosted by the intense Tori (Amanda Duarte)-who narrates her own life in third person-when she tries to buy a ticket out of town.
Yes, it owes a certain debt to television situation comedies. There's that fast, snappy dialogue, with laugh-out-loud one-liners, and it's covering the same well-trodden territory-the awkward process of getting into relationships. And some terribly cute '80s pop songs are played during scene changes.
But unlike, say, Friends, this production uses its comic momentum to push us into thoughtful reflections on love, math, and self-destructive behavior, among other things. There's a fabulous family trauma scene at a Denny's, for example-in which Nick desperately blames his father for his own attraction to "psychotic women"-that seems to transcend most of your standard "mom-abandoned-me" clichés.
The players, just vulnerable enough behind the humor, don't skimp on layers of motivation. Of course, it doesn't hurt that they're so funny-especially the hilarious, manic Duarte. (When Nick tells her she can't smoke on the plane, she answers fiercely: "No, no, I've seen the signs, you can, for five hundred dollars.")
Maybe I'm just a sucker for smart romantic comedies and good program design, but this show appeals to me. Put your seat in the upright position and your tray table up, and enjoy a well-crafted look at love and travel.