By Bill Hirschman
Back in the day, mainstream theater luxuriated in a lovely genre of character-based comedies suffused with smiles and chuckles, and usually ending with a surprising warm and touching denouement.
The best ones – The Odd Couple comes to mind – were deceptively well-crafted, well-acted and well-directed without calling attention to those virtues. As actor Edmund Gwenn said on his deathbed, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”
Tracy Jones bowing at Island City Stage is a worthy inheritor in which the comedy masks desperately lonely people trying to make connections that they don’t have the skill to achieve.
It’s a briskly-moving smile with quirky characters who may be nursing poignant secrets but who have no hesitation throwing food at each other and slamming doors in faces like in a Three Stooges short. And yet, it closes with an ever-more compassionate last act that should warm open hearts.
Stephen Kaplan’s script, part of the rolling world premiere program from the National New Play Network, is solid if a tad long. But it helps immeasurably that the skilled quartet of actors – Niki Fridh, Irene Adjan, Sara Grant and Matthew Buffalo – and especially director Andy Rogow at the top of his game have paced and timed every beat of the show with a comedy connoisseur’s expertise.
We’re in the cheery back dining room of the ultimate third-rate kitschy chicken franchise Jones Street Bar and Grill – The Place For Wings and Things, whose bright yellow walls are covered in beer posters, game boards, and a variety of oddities such as chicken in a cage-like bowl. (High praise to set and lighting designer Ardean Landhuis for once again creating a detailed environment in Island City’s narrow and shallow stage.)
Tables covered with large platters of chicken, chip and dip, all are being pointedly overseen by a nervous yuppie-looking Tracy Jones (Fridh) in preparation for what a large sign on the wall proclaims is a welcome to other Tracy Joneses.
Indeed, Tracy has sent out thousands of emails, Facebook postings and a host of other marketing ploys across the nation (including hiring a blimp) in a cute ploy to attract women with same name for a festive convocation.
Helping her is an irrepressibly chipper under-18 server (Grant) who, as someone new to the job, perpetually utters the company advertising mantras and guidelines that she has been taught.
Tracy is nervously prepping, checking the laptop she has apparently set up for a powerpoint on a large screen TV, checking the sheets for a game, arranging the platters just so. She has clearly invested a good deal of money and time in something she is desperate to succeed – a get-acquainted party for any woman sharing the name Tracy Jones. She has even bought the naming rights to a star and created star party favors for the guests.
But suddenly it becomes clear that the party was slated to start an hour and 15 minutes ago and there is no one here.
Enter an elegantly dressed woman (Adjan) wearing a lovely necklace and heels as if headed to an opera opening. She accepts one of the Tracy Jones nametags and explains that in her free time, she is a bibliotherapist who recommends precisely the right book to precisely the right person. As the server interacts with the woman, they discover that they both speak a little bit of Frodo’s Middle Earth language.
On occasion, when no one is looking, a young man pops in and then back out, someone we later learn is a gay man named Tracy Jones (Buffalo) who is getting drunk in the bar, and who later joins the tiny event.
The “party” deteriorates as the elegant Tracy tries to leave and it becomes clear no other woman is coming. We learn that the hostess Tracy is a bank employee with no friends and who is ignored at work. The elegant Tracy is not at all who she is trying to pretend she is, either. The gay Tracy has suffered a terrible tragedy. And the server is just trying to negotiate this strange gathering that is nothing she was briefed on in training the week before.
These are all vulnerable people desperately trying to cope with crippling loneliness. And by the end of an hour-and-half, everyone leaves a little wiser, a little more comfortable with their lives.
But, trust us, all that said, I promise this is written and played as a wry comedy with laughs and humor delivered at a crisp pace, just not the knee slapping, guffaw-eliciting kind.
The three actresses – all of whom are adept at drama – remind us that they all have considerable comedy on their resumes as well. And while the cast makes clear that all three Tracys are dealing with personal issues, the quartet has the droll farce nailed perfectly.
Rogow, founding artistic director of Island City Stage, also has a diverse list of credits, but once again, his detailed, perfectly timed work here could be a textbook for up and coming colleagues in staging comedy.
The production is the third at bat for the work in the National New Play Network’s series of rolling world premieres of a work in development.
Kaplan is an award-winning writer with numerous pieces staged off-Broadway and in regional theaters. If marketed well and widely, Tracy will likely have lots of company appearing on summer schedules around the country for several years for theaters needing a break from Long Days Journey Into Night.
Tracy Jones runs through June 18 at Island City Stage at Wilton Theatre Factory, 2304 N. Dixie Highway, Wilton Manors. The running time is 1 hours 25 minutes with no intermission. 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $40-45. Call (954) 928-9800 or visit islandcitystage.org.
Notes: For helpful tips about directions, parking, arrival time, etc., please visit the Contact Page at http://www.islandcitystage.org/contact/ . Do not park in the retail spaces directly across from the theater. They may tow your car