How can you take a play seriously when its protagonist is a teenage hooker who needs only six months with a caring older man to transform herself into an interior designer? How can you avoid wincing when the man admits he wants his rent girl to replace the daughter he lost to cystic fibrosis? How can you stifle laughter when a climactic argument ends with the exclamation “Your imaginary princess is a whore?”
Those aren’t just academic questions. They’re the quandaries raised by “Pied-a-Terre.”
Of course, playwright John Anastasi would rather we ponder the healing power of love. His characters have brutal pasts that are surprisingly intertwined, and the mounting, weepy revelations are meant to move us. But emotion is botched by crude writing. Most egregiously, the overwrought plot twists border on parody.
The real howler comes in the final scene, but there’s a decent example at the end of act one. We’ve seen flashbacks of Jack (John Howard Swain) agreeing to pay $8,000 a month to a young prostie named Katie (Jessica McKee), provided she gets her GED, goes with him to museums and finds a new career. In the present, we’ve seen Katie square off with Jack’s sister, Julia (Robin Riker), who is unhappy to discover her brother’s pet and the secret apartment in which he’s housing her.
And then Julia drops a bomb, explaining why Jack hasn’t been around in a while. Ominous piano music. Blackout.
On top of that, there’s the unconvincing dialogue. Katie’s voice is especially inconsistent, swinging from coarse slang to formal questions like “How was I to know you were serious?” While it’s true she’s getting more educated, it’s still illogical for a modern teenager to speak like she’s in a corset.
McKee ups the awkwardness by enunciating unimportant words. When thesp says, “I understand Jack, and I know what he needs,” she implies that she doesn’t comprehend what she’s saying.
She at least knows how to use her body, allowing herself to stand still when other actors would flap their hands or swivel their necks for emphasis. But director Tom Ferriter lacks that focus. His aimless scenes never create the sense that something’s about to happen, which makes those plot twists feel even less organic.
Ferriter’s transitions are also problematic. The playwright grounds us chronologically by changing a painting on Jack’s wall — abstract art means the past, a dancing couple means the present — and for every scene change, the director lowers the lights, cranks up Michael Valenti’s schmaltzy score and makes us wait for the paintings to be switched. The constant interruptions add several minutes to an already tiresome experience.