Like another homegrown S.F. hit, Claire Chaffee’s “Why We Have a Body,” Sara Felder’s “The Lady Upstairs”– billed as “a love story about atomic fission”– balances deft lesbian romantic comedy against adventurous philosophical digressions.
Felder is best known as a juggler-cum-comic monologuist, so it’s not surprising that her short evening manages to levitate elements that might easily hit the ground with a heavy thud. Though Mary Coleman’s Theater Rhino revival is not always as polished as the premiere production that Mary Forcade helmed in 1992 at Intersection for the Arts, this script remains a crowd-pleasing charmer.
Selma (Laurie Dingler) is a very tweedy scientist whose evening musings on nuclear fission are interrupted by an upstairs neighbor. Brash Roberta (Trish Adair) has misplaced her apartment keys. Despite a less-than-rapturous reception , she sees no reason why she shouldn’t wait for the landlord in Selma’s flat. Major differences in politics (Selma works at Livermore Lab, Roberta is an anti-nuke activist) and personality keep turning small talk into big arguments. Yet by the end, this strained encounter has morphed into a blissful first date. Felder adds a novel fillip: Obsessed with the moral questions behind her scholarly and career passions, Selma engages in “conversations” with various long-dead fellow researchers, theorists and politicos. Once Roberta tunes in, she, too, starts jawing with the spectral likes of Otto Frisch, Churchill and FDR. (A very droll Colin Thomson essays these and other male roles.)
This fantasy logic is a tad sloppily worked out, and there are some overly cute or contrived moments. While the lead actors develop a nice dynamic in time, both lack the technique to nuance their amiably pat science nerd/bisexual hipster types early on.
Yet “The Lady Upstairs”– the title refers to God, as well as Roberta — builds considerable appeal. The cast is very engaging during the final stretch, when lust and whimsy intermingle with ingenious panache.
Pam Peniston designed the clever cut-away, bookwormy set, which allows smooth transitions between Selma’s S.F. apartment reality and the historical debates inside her head.