Charles Mee, author of “Wintertime,” “Big Love” and “First Love,” has said, “I like plays that are not too neat, too finished, too presentable. My plays are broken, jagged, filled with sharp edges.” “Summertime,” a Southern California premiere, is a prime example of Mee’s playwriting method, a wild essay on the marvels and messiness of love. An over-the-top tale like this needs a director with instinctive feeling for screwball comedy, and Michael Michetti knows exactly when to pump up the action to operatic heights and when to pull back and let his eccentric characters express their innermost emotions.
Michetti starts on a relatively calm note when introducing youthful James (Thomas Patrick Kelly) to Tessa (Tessa Thompson). James’ appealingly clumsy efforts to connect with Tessa are interrupted by fearlessly romantic Francois (Bjorn Johnson), who whisks Tessa off into a spectacular dance — choreographed with rapturous abandon by Kitty McNamee. The gauche James soon learns that Francois is the lover of Tessa’s mother, Maria (Elizabeth Huffman); her dad, Frank (Travis Michael Holder), while still married to Maria, is involved with Edmund (Larry Reinhardt-Meyer), a humorously uptight individual who wants Frank to make a clear commitment to boyfriend or wife.
As these characters blunder, betray each other, bond and break apart, the show hits one comic high after another. Sometimes the jokes are dry, as when lesbian Natalie (Jeanne Sakata) declares her frenzied, fiery passion for former lover Mimi (Eileen T’Kaye) and Mimi comments, “It was a casual thing.” But when Michetti and company decide to be physical, they let it all hang out. Maria’s tirade against faithless Francois propels him into pushing her away, placing his foot on her breasts and doing a mock imitation of murdering her, an exhibition that makes us laugh and also understand how frustrating possessive love can become.
Aided by Scott L. Lane’s gloriously grotesque costumes and Tom Buderwitz’s set of trees topped by green umbrellas, the first act moves like lightning, and despite the script’s multiple characters, it’s easy to identify and respond to their conflicts. Act two has its share of delightful moments, but the clarity of the narrative is clouded by too many speeches. Act one defines love via action; the second act turns into a group therapy session. We want the relationships to resolve dramatically, rather than with exposition, and even though Mee’s couples make their choices, the decisions seem peripheral to author philosophizing.
Compensating for these lapses are a gallery of exceptional portrayals. Johnson externalizes every aspect of Francois, from self-dramatization and sexual hunger to perpetual immaturity. Holder’s Frank performs with contrasting warmth and gentleness, holding spectators spellbound with a long and difficult speech about love’s ephemeral nature. As explosively passionate Maria, Huffman is a hilarious amalgam of every robust diva seen on opera stages, and Sakata supplies a hell-raising turn as the sexually voracious Natalie. In a small role, Jim Anzide dominates his scenes as Gunter, an unrestrained manchild with physical lust for both Maria and daughter Tessa.
A few vignettes, though funny and energetically acted, feel extreme: Patrick Gallo’s psychotic serial killer/pizza delivery man Bob, and the ragingly angry cook Barbara (Sandy Martin), concepts with a standup comedy quality that interferes with story flow.
Playwright Mee has the sense to end his scrambled saga with conventional closure and delicacy — as the two lovers who open the production, James and Tessa, claim the stage alone, dance quietly and prove, by their acceptance of each other, that true love and romance can triumph.