Playwright: Lanford Wilson. At: Shattered Globe Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-795-8150; www.shatteredglobe.org; $27-$32. Runs through: Nov. 18
"This isn't opera! Why should love be tragic?" cries a character as he schemes to reunite a pair of reluctant sweethearts. Indeed, if the tone of Lanford Wilson's 1987 drama weren't so gosh-durn gloomy, it could almost be a comedy. After all, what's the goal of comedy, if not the life-affirming harmony of true minds unobstructed by guilt and regrets?
There's no denying the sad occasion that launches the dramatic actionin this case, the untimely death in a boating accident of a talented young dancer. His boho-artist roommates mourn his passing, each according to individual temperamentgay Larry channels his grief into compulsive waggery, while het Anna turns hers inward despite the comfort offered by her screenwriter fiancé. Then one night, the deceased's brother invades their melancholic torporJimmy, or "Pale" as he insists on being called, is a boisterous, vulgar, hard-drinking, coke-snorting schlemiel who vomits forth his anger with the willful intractability of an infant in a tantrum. Surprisingly, Annawho has just declared "mother love" to be an alien concept to herfinds herself curiously attracted to this visceral oaf.
How attractive we find these ultrasensitive waifs is almost wholly dependent on the degree of empathy generated by actors playing them. When staged in small spaces, as this play often is, the dialogue is frequently reduced to talking-heads-on-the-couch. The opportunities for physical movement offered by Andrew Hildner's replica lower-Manhattan loft, however, coupled with the emphasis on text analysis and body language director Linda Gillum demands of her cast, renders the plot progression in this production more lucid than any other in recent memory.
It's badly needed, too, to sell the go-with-your-impulses school of romanticism to audiences wiser now than in 1987. Jake Szczepaniak's ever-so-slight pause after Larry delivers another knee-jerk quip bespeaks a self-awareness we find immediately endearing, as does Brad Woodard's charmingly clueless portrayal of Burton the dilettante. Both help Kate LoConti to liberate Anna from Wilson's Victorian view of womanhood, but can do nothing for Ryan Kitley, who plays Pale as a standard-issue palooka with none of the animal magnetism necessary to justify our indulging his propensity to make a mess of whatever he touches. You don't need to be an advice columnist to recognize a restraining order waiting to happen.