Originally planned to inaugurate the Philadelphia Theater Company’s new space, “Unusual Acts of Devotion” was written by Terrence McNally with Kathy Bates in mind, then rewritten when she withdrew from the production. Now, a year later, it arrives with a thud. Sentimental, new agey and full of faux wisdom, this play about New York, love and friendship is more like a long-winded Hallmark card than a serious drama.
Leonard Foglia’s direction includes odd blank pauses and much sitting down and standing up; coming in and going out; and long scenes of social dancing that are mystifyingly pointless. The script is structured as a series of soliloquies — each character gets one — apparently to demonstrate how alone we all are and how deeply we long to be understood.
The occasion for this New York rooftop party is the fifth anniversary of a happily married couple expecting a baby; the setting is the building’s roof in the Village — with water tank, fire escape and skyline. Nadine (Ana Reeder, speaking with singsong slowness) is a wholesome woman from Vermont (without a Vermont accent), crazy for her husband Leo (Michael Aronov), a jazz clarinetist.
Other apartment dwellers are the party guests: Chick (Richard Thomas) is a tour guide living a lonely life since his lover Aaron committed suicide; Josie (Faith Prince) is a shameless Blanche DuBois knockoff without the Southern charm — a bitter drunk, just out of rehab, having lost her job for having sex with one of her high school students. Mrs. Darnell (Viola Harris), one of the building’s original tenants, confronts death in the person of a serial murderer who lurks (unseen except by us) on top of the water tank throughout the entire play.
The dialogue runs to lots of New Jersey jokes and lines like “Love makes us do crazy things,” “Don’t confuse smart with glib — think with your heart,” “New York is God’s kingdom on earth,” “Look at the full moon and think how lucky you are to be alive.”
The partygoers’ choices on the CD player occasion many disquisitions on music; all too tellingly, the show begins with “Up on the Roof” and ends with Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien.”