After a much-praised performance in “Aunt Dan and Lemon” in London last year, Glenne Headly returns to the American stage for the first time in a decade in “Detachments” at the Tiffany. As an actress Headly is particularly well suited to capturing contradictions. She can be flaky and grounded, sophisticated and naive. And she can certainly be funny, with a sense of comic timing that’s never off. Colleen Dodson-Baker’s play provides an opportunity for Headly and a solid ensemble to display their talents, but the work is too obvious, too relentlessly repetitive to be interesting. It’s a piece that has its own, less flattering, contradictions — it’s very calculated but very slight.
Headly portrays Ellen, an actress who’s been living with Garry (Albie Selznick) for eight years but remains completely uncertain he’s the man of her dreams. Garry is also an actor, determined to prove that he can be funny when he clearly can’t be. He has auditioned for so many sitcoms that he’s fond of saying “boing” and barking at inappropriate moments in a conversation. But he’s lovable even in his neediness, and Ellen finds the relationship so comfortable that, while she can’t imagine walking down the aisle with him, she also can’t imagine parting.
The story gets under way when Ellen experiences a retinal detachment in one eye and begins going through a series of medical exams and procedures to correct the problem. The cause is unclear, although Dodson-Baker wastes little time exploring psychological and metaphorical causes. Soon after her vision problems begin, Ellen is greeted with another form of detachment — Garry announces that, while he wants to settle down, move to New Jersey and have kids, he doesn’t want to do it with Ellen.
Dodson-Baker connects these two plot strains for the remainder of the play, even having scenes at the doctor’s office meld into scenes with Garry or her friends, hammering home the already transparent connections.
Ellen is also detached from her own emotions, and unable to move on from the breakup until she gets in tune with herself, until she “sees” things clearly. Get it?
The play premiered in Chicago in 1996, but it feels a good 10 to 15 years older than that, filled with references to IUDs, self-help jargon and various forms of gender confusion. The playwright also directs, and the production is certainly tight and quickly paced, with one laugh line coming right on top of the other. There aren’t lots of zinging one-liners here — instead, it’s a comedy based not so much on jokes as on repetition. If a line, or a gasp, is even mildly amusing, you can be sure Dodson-Baker will use it over and over again. Perhaps this represents a dramatic strategy to turn the comic into the poignant, but it really just transforms the silly into the irritating. It only gets worse when the play turns earnest toward the end.
The more-than-able ensemble milks what’s here for all it’s worth, including some funny bits by Laraine Newman — unrecognizable from her “Saturday Night Live” days — and, especially, Ian Patrick Williams, who matches Headly for unfailing comic timing.
Everyone else is very fine too, although this is some pretty pallid casting in the literal sense — forget about a minority cast member; there’s not even anyone here with a tan.
This homogeneity adds to the blandness of the milieu, which is exacerbated by set designer Victoria Profitt’s decision to use emptiness and cold colors, enhancing the play’s purposeful frigidity. “Detachments” doesn’t need any help feeling detached.