By Bill Hirschman
There was a period in Neil Simon’s career, after The Odd Couple and before the Brighton Beach trilogy, when the plays he wrote and especially his screenplays successfully negotiated a difficult but intriguing bipolar approach with classic television wit on one hand that almost, but not quite, merged with poignant emotion on the other.
Jerry Mayer, who wrote and supervised scripts for scores of ’70s and early ’80s television comedies, mines similar territory in Pigs Do Fly’s production of his 2 Across, the story of two radically different but similarly lonely neurotic urbanites who meet on a pre-dawn San Francisco commuter train.
They start off as strangers on a train (not the Hitchcock version) and once you get the show’s intended vibe, you can see the improbable inevitable bonding coming numerous stations ahead, no matter how seemingly incompatibly alien they are in temperament and background.
So, it’s about 4:15 a.m. on an empty BART train from the San Francisco airport headed for the eastern suburbs. An attractive patrician woman in a business suit is studiously working the Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle when her concentration is interrupted by the hurried entrance of a slightly schlubby mensch of a guy who plops down and by coincidence is struggling mightily to finish the same puzzle.
She wants to be left alone, but he’s the outgoing type driven to get into other people’s private spaces. She resists by stiff-arming him in all senses, but his quick wit and intrusive friendliness begins to wear her down. She’s the kind of person who carries an atlas and French dictionary in her briefcase to aid her puzzle solving. He’s the kind of guy who packs a foil-wrapped BLT and airline liquor bottles in his.
They are both intelligent, spiky, decent, wounded people in late middle-age wrestling with lives that have not quite worked out like they expected three decades ago. It turns out that Janet is a psychiatrist with family problems and Josh is a temp who has rejected working for his father’s button-making business.
Over the longest train ride in theatrical history since Dutchman, they slowly reveal little bits of backstory and – here’s the suspension of disbelief challenge – give each other advice, banter with dialogue you wish you were capable of on the fly, spar, fight, discover unsuspected depths to each other, and, of course, end up not only respecting each other, but willing to explore the possibility of a further relationship.
The fact that this unlikely arc seems close to plausible on stage is due to the total commitment of actors Barbara Sloan and David R. Gordon under Deborah Kondelik’s direction.
Pigs Do Fly’s mission as it enters its sixth season continues to be producing theater by, for and about people over 50 years old. And that’s one of the quiet strengths of this production: Sloan, Gordon and Kondelik persuasively depict people who bring baggage to the journey (a steamer trunk according to Janet’s evaluation of Josh) and who are struggling to find a second or third act in their lives.
Truthfully, even though this script was written around 2005, the hardworking artists cannot hide that it’s a theatrical paradigm of a different era. But so is Hamlet, so audiences should be expected to accept it on its own terms. Still, if written today, it would take preternatural talents to get past that very weird mélange, say Nathan Lane or the late Jack Lemmon.
It’s heavily peppered with truly funny rim shot Simon-like witticisms like “I find you kind of fascinating — like a cruise on the Titanic,” or “You remind me of this puppy who followed me home – with a broken tail,” or “I’m shallow – in a deep way.”
But a lot of these Bob Newhart-Mary Richards lines (Mayer wrote for both) are in good hands. Gordon, the owner of the vest pocket Empire Stage where this is performed, has a role that fits his talents perfectly. His classic comic timing, his infectious energy, his physical ebullience drives the evening as his Josh is winningly smart, funny and seemingly open yet emotionally damaged.
Sloan, a Florida veteran of scores of dramas and comedies (I fondly remember her starring in Wit), is especially effective in charting Janet’s conversion – a truly difficult task because Mayer has her bouncing back and forth and back and forth between being attracted and instinctively resistant to Josh. She makes you believe that her uptight Janet would actually say things like, when urging Josh to finish his abandoned puzzle, “Crossword puzzles reflect character.… Crosswords are a metaphor for life.” You try that one.
Kondelik keeps the evening moving smoothly and stages the actors with enough mobility that it never seems visually static in that tiny space. She, too, knows those classic rhythms essential to pulling off the comedy even as it leavens the more serious moments. She either invents or encourages little bits of business such as when Josh invades Janet’s space to work on their crosswords, he heedlessly pushes the belongings she had placed on the seat beside her.
A shout out to Ardean Landhuis’s simple but effective design of the train car and David Hart’s whooshes, wheezes, squeals and overhead station announcements.
Once again, the show does not quite land firmly because it’s difficult for 21st Century audiences to readily accept that Simon vibe from the early ’70s to early ’80s. The emotional content and humorous one-liners sometimes don’t seem like they belong adjacent to each other, although that juxtaposition is precisely the vision that Mayer is trying to depict.
But with Gordon, Sloan and Kondelik, it’s a laugh-filled journey that may catch your heart unawares.
2 Across from Pigs Do Fly Productions runs through March 24 at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Drive, Fort Lauderdale (two blocks north of Sunrise, east of railroad tracks); at 8 p.m. Thursday – Saturday; 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $39. For tickets: www.pigsdoflyproductions.com / 866-811-4111