It takes its sweet time to get rolling, but L. (for Larry) Pontius’ new play “Umbrella” asks a large question: Why are we here — in the middle of a hot, mean, drought-ridden city — when we could be living in some quaint little hamlet? Even at 80 minutes, this little two-hander is long-winded, but the two cast members spend their stage time wisely and, quite literally, acting up a storm.
“I just want to talk,” whines Frank (Judson Jones) to Helen (Christa Kimlicko Jones), and, for about 30 minutes, you may feel like you’re simply hearing the voice of the author. Director Padraic Lillis lets a lot of lines hang in the stale air, and Pontius’ dialogue is mannered enough to sound emptily clever. But once the playwright gets settled, those mannerisms give way to a close and deeply felt study of his two troubled characters.
It’s been said that the hardest thing for a dramatist to do is keep two people in the same room together. By that standard, “Umbrella” succeeds admirably. The room is actually a rooftop where Frank has taken Helen, a total stranger, after an episode that left her lying in the middle of the street sobbing.
Frank is, to put it gently, a little creepy. Costumer Lea Umberger has dressed Judson Jones for maximum discomfort: He wears a tent-like short-sleeve button-up shirt (untucked), pants that reach vainly for the tops of his shoes and a tie that looks like it’s trying to kill him. Within this getup, Jones’ Frank attempts to vanish, positioning himself for maximum invisibility around the set and almost never looking Christa Kimlicko Jones’ Helen directly in the eyes.
“You’re miserable!” accuses Helen, but, like most awkward people, Frank is the best interpreter of his own neuroses.
“I’m not miserable,” he replies. “I’m weird.” Then he bursts out laughing to demonstrate it.
Helen laughs right along with him; she’s been suspicious of Frank up to this point, and no wonder: It turns out he’s not just strange, he’s also a minor pervert — from atop the roof, Frank sight-sees across the street into the apartment of a happy couple he envies.
The self-destructive Helen probably laughs because she’s got problems of her own: While Frank deals with crushing loneliness by inventing little happily-ever-after histories for other people, Helen prowls the streets looking for someone to cut her. Crazy as she is, she has a pixieish New York-pretty thing going on, with Soho clothes and Williamsburg hair, and it’s hard not to wonder whether Frank is a little out of his league.
Loneliness, it turns out, is the great equalizer, and, while the character of Frank is a little better observed than Helen, the actors overturn objections of fairness and aesthetic compatibility by looking cute together (Jones and Jones are married, so it makes sense that they look like a matched set). It’s a great, gratifying moment when the two crowd together under the titular umbrella after the heat finally breaks into rain.
As fun as the Joneses are, Pontius and Lillis could have gotten more out of them if the show were shortened to last an hour, possibly less. It shouldn’t take 80 minutes to make Pontius’ point. Maybe Helen and Frank’s story is a good first or second act to a longer piece of work, or maybe it’s a killer one-act, but it isn’t yet a full-length play.