They have this new thing now called adulthood, and nobody much likes it. Certainly not Max and Anna, the lovers in Lucas Kavner’s surprisingly mature “Fish Eye.” He’s a secretly aspirational songwriter and wage slave, and she wants to make movies but isn’t sure where to begin. In helmer Adrienne Campbell-Holt’s tight production, the pair try to nurture individual ambitions without destroying their romance, and while the play covers well-trod imploding-relationship territory, it does so gently and with enough humor and grace to merit attention.
Kavner’s well-observed script gets a lot right in a short span of time: Max (Joe Tippett, who does a good job keeping his borderline-loser character lovable) and Anna (a lovely Betty Gilpin) both harbor a crushing embarrassment about their artistic ambitions; Anna’s spectacularly obnoxious ex Jay (Ato Essandoh, who must have practiced the annoying throw-back-the-head guffaw) is so environmentally friendly you could just murder him in his sleep. Max’s questionably platonic buddy Avery (a nicely uncrazy Katya Campbell), too, keeps leaving her pal elliptical voicemails that never quite blossom into declarations of love.
Despite the title, “Fish Eye” never feels distorted. It’s not simply that the play is marbled with well-observed details; it’s that they make up most of the dialogue. Jay just barely oversteps with Anna. Max doesn’t quite discourage Avery. The words “I love you” first appear on page 74 of the script. Instead, like real people, Kavner’s characters say the words just to the left of the words they’d like to be saying; conscience, or vanity, or simple fear make cowards of them all.
Structurally, the play resembles something by Christopher Shinn, with stop-start overlapping dialogue and scenes that takes place out of chronological order, so that the audience is slightly disoriented and comes to know the central relationship as a catalog of small gestures and in-jokes, rather than as a list of plot points. It’s an effective device, with Max and Anna meeting cute in the play’s last scene and performing their romantic postmortem in the first.
Tech aspects are very good, especially given the small budget. John McDermott’s set finds some unexpected touchstones — one playing area is full of cardboard boxes that scream “cruddy job” without any further explanation needed. Daniel Kluger’s standout sound design should be circulated among his Off Broadway colleagues as proof that a fire engine is worth a thousand indie bands.