Heartbreak Help

The first of the mismatched pairs to arrive for a weekend of determined self-improvement are the tough-talking Margo (Ellen Ratner) and the preternaturally perky Paula (Laurel Green). Paula, with her hypoallergenic hyperactivity, is all brittle enthusiasm. "I just splashed cold water on my neck and face," she chirps as they head off for their first seminar. "It's so refreshing!" But beneath her relentlessly sweet-natured exterior is a jumble of neuroses that Margo, with her cynical booze-and-boys mentality, inadvertently unleashes.

With:
Cast: Laurel Green (Paula), Ellen Ratner (Margo), Carol Ann Susi (Andromeda), Pamela Segall (Sage). The women of Justin Tanner's "Heartbreak Help" might have been easy targets. Collected in a cheap hotel room in Joshua Tree for a "Woman-Writer-Hero" conference, they almost wear their desperation on their sleeves, albeit under several layers of stratagems for self-empowerment. This is Tanner's 10th play for the Cast Theater and his ear remains sharply satirical, but the accomplishment of "Heartbreak Help" has a sweeter edge: Even as he revels in his characters' ridiculousness, Tanner draws them with a sly sympathy. At their most pathetic, they are most human.

The first of the mismatched pairs to arrive for a weekend of determined self-improvement are the tough-talking Margo (Ellen Ratner) and the preternaturally perky Paula (Laurel Green). Paula, with her hypoallergenic hyperactivity, is all brittle enthusiasm. “I just splashed cold water on my neck and face,” she chirps as they head off for their first seminar. “It’s so refreshing!” But beneath her relentlessly sweet-natured exterior is a jumble of neuroses that Margo, with her cynical booze-and-boys mentality, inadvertently unleashes.

TX:Diana Gibson and Andy Daley for the Cast Theater present a play in two acts written and directed by Justin Tanner. Occupying the second of the room’s double beds are Andromeda (Carol Ann Susi) and her daughter Sage (Pamela Segall). Andromeda is a wannabe spiritual adviser who covers the New Age waterfront: She cleanses chakras, consults guardian angels, unleashes the healing power of crystals, and hosts the once-weekly session of love recovery that gives the play its title.

But with her choking Brooklyn accent, dependence on cookies as a mood enhancer and fondness for bad caftans, Andromeda doesn’t quite cut it in the class department. Her aspiration for the weekend is to meet her self-help god and guru, Bryn Masters, and get her endorsement for her workshop — and a much-needed feeling of approval.

Sage certainly doesn’t supply any; the odd girl out at this party of odd girls, the quintessentially teenage Sage is allergic to New Age shenanigans, optimism in general and, most virulently, her mother.

As the weekend progresses, the motel room seems to get smaller, as the women’s neuroses battle for supremacy, with heartfelt alliances forged in one minute and abandoned in the next. The expertness of Tanner’s characterizations is happily matched by the talents of his four actresses. Green is a marvel as a gawky girl who tries a little too hard, who desperately wants to be “fun.” Susi’s utter sincerity as Andromeda keeps her from tipping toward caricature; she delivers her chakra-cleansing rituals in the same deadpan Brooklynese that she brings to the discussion of missing Mallomars, and the juxtaposition makes for some of the play’s funniest moments. Segall and Ratner are also faultless in their less central roles.

But if the natural comic rhythms of their discussions of love and healing keep the play aloft through the first act, the second act reveals some of the play’s weaknesses. Though they all hit their marks, the jokes sometimes teeter toward sitcom styles.

More importantly, Tanner’s ear is so closely attuned to the tenor of real life that the exigencies of drama get lost in the shuffle. The developments that unfold in the second act, including Andromeda’s humiliation at the hands of Bryn Masters and Paula’s revelation of her reason for attending the retreat, are not the stuff of compelling theater and seem contrived to muster meatier conflict. And the ache that these women feel is most perceptively drawn when it is not spelled out — Margo’s recitation of her mistreatment at the hands of her boyfriend is one of the play’s flatter moments.

Nonetheless, these women stay with you. Tanner’s play unveils the pathos at the heart of his characters’ comic scramble to heal the wounds of modern life, a desire unfamiliar to no one. He doesn’t stint on displaying their silliness, but he loves them for it.

Heartbreak Help

Production: Heartbreak Help (Cast Theater; 99 seats; $ 15 top)

Crew: Set, Andy Daley; lighting, Ken Booth. Opened May 24, 1996; reviewed June 9; runs through July 7. Running time: 2 hours, 10 min.

With: Cast: Laurel Green (Paula), Ellen Ratner (Margo), Carol Ann Susi (Andromeda), Pamela Segall (Sage). The women of Justin Tanner's "Heartbreak Help" might have been easy targets. Collected in a cheap hotel room in Joshua Tree for a "Woman-Writer-Hero" conference, they almost wear their desperation on their sleeves, albeit under several layers of stratagems for self-empowerment. This is Tanner's 10th play for the Cast Theater and his ear remains sharply satirical, but the accomplishment of "Heartbreak Help" has a sweeter edge: Even as he revels in his characters' ridiculousness, Tanner draws them with a sly sympathy. At their most pathetic, they are most human.

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