Adam Gwon’s modestly charming chamber tuner “Ordinary Days,” now at South Coast Rep, keeps sending its four ordinary New Yorkers to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to confront the gap between their dreamed-for “big picture” canvas, musically described as “The fairy tale ending … Something they shoot for/That sets them apart,” and the tiny pointillist realities of their ordinary days. Helmer Ethan McSweeny’s framing of these portraits is alternately accomplished and shaky, but Gwon’s brushstrokes mark him as a talent to watch.
His titles alone signal the characters’ frustrations — “Don’t Wanna Be Here,” “I’m Trying,” “Hundred-Story City,” “Gotta Get Out” — many in the nervous-patter manner of “Another Hundred People” and “Getting Married Today” from the granddaddy of urban-angst tuners, Sondheim’s “Company.” But in song after song, Gwon has his restless quartet struggle to pull their way into rapturous melody, paralleling their struggles to cement a place in the cement jungle.
The familiar romance of Claire and Jason, gamely making a go of living together, achieves notable grace as enacted by Nancy Anderson and David Burnham. Jason’s frat-boy enthusiasm is like a bull in Claire’s china shop, and Gwon finds amusing musical fodder in quarrels over shared space, which wine to bring to dinner and how to navigate Broadway in a taxi. Claire’s fragility isn’t fully explained until an 11th-hour revelation, worth the wait as luminously sung and acted by Anderson.
Though Jason is the recipient of some of Gwon’s weaker lyrics (“You’ve unearthed a break-up clause/Which is wanting to put life on pause”), Burnham’s plangent baritone and sure emotional connections add up to the evening’s most satisfying component. His piano expertise incidentally grants a break to musical director-accompanist Dennis Castellano, who handles Gwon’s cascades of notes with aplomb but may need to soak his fingers in Epsom salts.
Gwon’s B-story, an odd-couple bonding between gay downtown wannabe artist Warren (Nick Gabriel) and Type A grad student Deb (Deborah S. Craig), is marred by peculiarly juvenile behavior right out of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” Craig imports the same repertoire of shrieks and face scrunches with which she created Type A overachieving adolescent Marcy in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” while Gabriel goes wildly overboard with the camping and grand jetes.
McSweeny’s indulgence of such antics makes it difficult, if not impossible, for Gabriel and Park to shift into genuine sustained emotion, as their songs eventually demand they do. The characters’ fractured natures start to become a function of incompatible acting styles: These folks just don’t seem to be occupying the same city.
That’s no fault of Fred Kinney’s impressive three-tiered set (another debt to “Company” via Boris Aronson’s classic design), not fully used until the show’s final grand gestures but never failing to intimidate our doughty urban pioneers. Sliding panels play host to Jason Thompson’s witty, slightly blurry projections of cityscapes and Impressionist canvases, much the way Gotham seems to dreamers and fabulists who haven’t yet put their glasses on.