Laura Eason’s adaptation of Elizabeth Crane’s short story collection, “When the Messenger Is Hot,” initially seems an over-familiar misfire but then redeems itself in its later stages. The script delivers yet another tale of a single gal with oh-so-quirky problems, and the production, traveling to Gotham from its Chicago run at Steppenwolf Theater, relies on confusing staging and dubious design. But then comes the finale — to be revealed here — which delivers enough emotional and creative surprises to give some power to this wisp of a dramedy.
Not that the first two-thirds of the show — which launches 59E59’s GoChicago festival — are bad per se. They’re just awfully familiar. Our heroine Josie tells us that her mother (Molly Regan), a salty-mouthed opera singer, has returned from the dead, and with that endpoint revealed, she takes us through the steps leading to Mom’s reappearance. We see spats that expose each woman’s idiosyncrasies, and we meet the stream of boyfriends (all played by Coburn Goss) who delight or confuse Josie as she tries to cope with her mother’s worsening cancer.
These specific events might be unique, but their manufactured sense of whimsy is not. Josie’s romantic foibles are generically cute, and her endless narration to the audience gets burdened with awkward attempts at cleverness.
Then there’s the casting gimmick. Josie is played by three actresses — Kate Arrington, Lauren Katz and Amy Warren — who share lines and wear the same sweater in three different colors. This conceit makes the production more overtly “theatrical,” but it mostly distracts from the narrative. Eason doesn’t give the Josies any discernible differences, and the thesps deliver interchangeable perfs. There’s no reason for them all to be there.
Nor is there a good reason for the trio to be dressed like rumpled college kids, their pastel sweaters matched with drawstring pants and ponytails. The script has Josie nearing 40, making it appear that costumer Debbie Baer wasn’t paying attention. (The actresses also look too young.)
Despite all this, Goss and Regan have an infectious good time with their oversized roles, and director Jessica Thebus keeps the airy affair moving quickly.
And then, out of nowhere, come the scenes that are more than just passable entertainment.
Soon after her mother returns, Josie realizes she didn’t come back at all. The resurrection is a desperate lie she has told herself to keep from facing loneliness. In a last attempt to prove the miracle happened, she stumbles toward a man who may have seen her mom in a bar. Unexpectedly, they dance.
At last, the show stops with the chatter. Two of the Josies disappear. For the entire length of a country song, two people connect in silence. Josie holds up a picture of her mother behind the man’s back, stares at it while she sways with him and starts to weep. The situation feels organic instead of fussily crafted.
When, during a subsequent promising date, Josie’s partner moves a vase of flowers that has sat untouched for the entire show, the suddenly activated prop seems to suggest her blooming chance at new love. But that isn’t what’s growing. Instead, it’s Josie’s ability to be content by herself.
Most stories about a single woman end with the reward of companionship, yet this one says she can be happy alone. As it makes this refreshingly unfamiliar argument, the show replaces tics and tricks with complicated emotion, and the effect is worth the wait.
Lauren Katz, left, Amy Warren and Katie Arrington all portray the same woman in ‘When the Messenger Is Hot,’ directed by Jessica Thebus.