Playwright Norman Lasca is almost onto something. A quartet of monologues set during a Minnesota heatwave, “A Great Place to Be From” brushes against beautiful moments, but Lasca’s writing always underlines the beauty. A sharp dramaturg and a more experienced writer — this is the scribe’s second New York production — could burn the signposts and let the play speak for itself.At his best, Lasca spins four vivid worlds out of words (Babel Theater Project provides minimal design). When flaky hospital orderly D (Jacques Roy) describes his pet Rottweiler as a “muscular black lamb,” he conjures both the gentle dog and his affection for it. And when he explains how he saved his pet’s life after a vicious attack, every bloody moment feels tangible. In the lengthy final piece, Lasca creates a bizarre symbol for isolation that nevertheless feels relatable: Anne (Kim Martin-Cotten) and her husband try to cloak their suburban loneliness with gifts. One day Anne receives a vintage leather sling — one that might be used by an actor to bind his leg and pretend he’s an amputee. Eventually, the sling becomes the centerpiece in a sad ritual with serious consequences. We can imagine it hanging off Anne’s body, like a calfskin reminder of how stunted her life has become. It works because it’s the one symbol the play doesn’t explain. Otherwise, Lasca succumbs to the inexperienced writer’s fear that the audience just won’t get it. Anne actually defines the “quiet resignation” of her marriage, and in the third monologue, in which a bitter grocery store employee (Andrew Zimmerman) describes his jingoistic boss, almost every joke gets dissected. The actors try to make these deadweight lines sound natural, but the production feels stilted. Energy also lags because aside from Anne, the speakers barely respond to what they describe. We learn more about the clerk’s boss than we do about the clerk, and D spends more time explaining his dog than himself. Ultimately, these characters have almost no point of view, so it’s hard to know why they’re talking. The writing results in vague perfs, especially from Matthew Johnson, whose shlubby twentysomething offers almost no personal details as he describes his emotionally abusive girlfriend. We know about her breasts and her job and her shopping habits, but we’re lucky to know that he drinks cheap beer. Lacking a specific character, the thesp resorts to generic sarcasm, capping every statement with an ironic chuckle. It’s not clear whether director Geordie Broadwater requested this tic or simply allowed it. Martin-Cotten, on the other hand, is given a character who actually reacts to her own story and manages an excellent performance. When she’s talking about her secrets, shame ripples in her voice, and when she walks, she has the clipped energy of a person insisting everything’s fine. Those choices add some valuable nuance to the show.
Kraine Theater; 99 seats; $18 top
A Babel Theater Project presentation of a play in two acts by Norman Lasca. Directed by Geordie Broadwater.
Sets, Tristan Jeffers; costumes, Mike Floyd; lighting, Eric Southern; sound, Anthony Gabriele; production stage manager, Caley Clocksin. Opened, reviewed Sept. 8, 2008. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.
Paul - Matthew Johnson D - Jacques Roy Gerry - Andrew Zimmerman Anne - Kim Martin-Cotten