'Midsummer (A Play With Songs)'

These two 35-year-olds find the courage to liberate themselves and live happily ever after.

When Cora Bissett’s Helena pays a parking toll in this joyous comedy by David Greig and Gordon McIntyre, the message on the machine reads: “Change is possible.” The joke, delivered by Matthew Pidgeon’s deadpan Bob, is that “it’s funny to have a parking machine doling out philosophical advice.” As advice goes, however, it is exactly what Helena and Bob need. These two 35-year-olds are suffering an identity crisis and, over one weekend of wild abandon — as riotously funny as it is touchingly romantic — they find the courage to liberate themselves and live happily ever after.

The choice of the name Helena is not coincidental. Greig’s play — adorned by acoustic songs and a couple of monologues by indie musician McIntyre — is a city-center “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in which the characters escape the chaos of their everyday lives over two nights of hedonistic excess. It is a modern-day reworking of the idea of a solstice festival, a night of dreamlike freedom giving way to a renewed sense of order.

Like Shakespeare’s lovers, Helena and Bob don’t realize how well matched they are. She is a highly paid lawyer dating an unreliable married man; he is a directionless divorcee who makes a living selling stolen cars to shady underworld figures. They meet by chance in an Edinburgh wine bar as the shortest night of the year approaches and hook up for a one-night stand.

That would be the end of it, were it not for a second-chance encounter when the two of them are at their most needy — he’s got £15,000 in cash to look after, and she thinks she’s pregnant. Despite themselves, they paint the town red in a short, bright night of the soul.

Written for a low-budget production in the fall of 2008, “Midsummer” proved such a success that it has been revived for a tour of Ireland, a return run on the Edinburgh Fringe and, in September, at the Cultch in Vancouver. A subsequent run in Gotham is now likely.

The play has the same feel-good vibe of many a romantic comedy and shamelessly satisfies the audience’s desire to see two lovers united. At the same time, however, Greig and McIntyre subvert many of the cliches of the genre. McIntyre’s songs, for one thing, are what Greig has called “the sort of music I listen to,” delicate melodies sung sweetly to acoustic guitars and not the soundtrack of some brassy Broadway tuner.

The lo-fi aesthetic championed by McIntyre’s band Ballboy is echoed in the play’s straightforward third-person storytelling technique, the actors creating their Edinburgh odyssey through direct address rather than fancy stagecraft. In the role of helmer, Greig gives the production a charming homespun feel; as writer, he winks to the audience by speculating on alternative romantic dialogue and preposterous Hollywood variations of the plot. It means the story has a sense of everyday credibility even as it conforms to the archetypal patterns of romantic comedy.

Carrying this are two heart-melting performances by Bissett and Pidgeon who revel in the laughter even as they treat their roles with absolute seriousness. They turn a midlife crisis into a dance of freedom, proving the wisdom of the parking machine and convincing us that change really is possible.

Midsummer (A Play With Songs)

Traverse Theater, Edinburgh; 110 seats; £16$26 top

Production

A Traverse Theater Company production of a play in one act by David Greig and Gordon McIntyre. Directed by David Greig.

Creative

Set and costume, Georgia McGuinness; lighting, Claire Elliot. Opened Oct. 24, 2008. Reviewed Aug. 15, 2009. Running time: 1 HOUR, 45 MIN.

Cast

Helena - Cora Bissett Bob - Matthew Pidgeon
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