The neurotic, contradictory, kinky and comic aspects of love are delightfully dramatized in “Under the Blue Sky,” winner of the 2001 Time Out Live Award for best new play in the West End. Written at 27 by David Eldridge, a man with an unusually mature grasp of human nature and its frailties, the story centers on three sets of British teachers who seek fulfillment while simultaneously undermining their own chances for happiness. In the play’s West Coast premiere at the Geffen, director Gilbert Cates captures the confusion and anguish of his characters with unsparing honesty, letting humor grow from dialogue without forcing it and encouraging his remarkable cast to show restraint no matter how extreme the situations become.
Broken into three self-contained sequences, the production begins when handsome, self-involved Nick (McCaleb Burnett) tells his longtime friend and fellow teacher Helen (Margaret Welsh) that he’s taking a job at another school.
Helen breaks down and admits her long-suppressed love for him, and Nick claims to be confused, saying, “All I know is I love you as a friend.” What gives their conflict depth is Nick’s desire to have it both ways: to make Helen say how much she cares without reciprocal commitment. His need to appear likable while acting selfishly is expertly conveyed by Burnett, and Welsh is far more than the usual stereotyped hysteric fighting to hold onto her man.
The next couple, Michelle (Sharon Lawrence) and Graham (Willie Garson) dip into wilder and more traumatic waters. When nerdy Graham tries to make love to Michelle and suffers humiliating premature ejaculation, she crucifies him as a stupid wimp and rubs his nose in stories of her numerous affairs. Michelle is a nightmare woman, yet it becomes increasingly obvious that her graphic sexual narratives are turning him on.
Lawrence combines scorching sexuality with cruelty, yet we feel her insecurity and despair. Even more startling is Garson’s Graham. When he sits on the bed, hands folded, staring like a crushed, dumbly devoted puppy at the woman of his fantasies, he embodies every rejected outsider unable to find love or sexual satisfaction.
Eldridge instinctively departs from the darkness of these two segments when featuring Robert (John Carroll Lynch) and Anne (Judy Geeson), who is 20 years his senior, a platonic friend and traveling companion. Robert battles to conquer her objections to a romantic relationship. His weapons are wit, the musical help of Neil Sedaka singing “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” and most of all, a passionate monologue delivered by Lynch with breathtaking sincerity. There’s a dance sequence so triumphantly funny and engaging it lifts the whole show to another, more euphoric level.
By the time the last pair of lovers see a cloudless blue sky that symbolizes their future, the stories have been skillfully tied together. Eldridge is careful not to furnish easy answers for Nick, Helen, Michelle or Graham, and his resolutions strongly sum up the difficulties of singles struggling to connect with each other.
The Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” and the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar” provide effective bridges between scenes, and Joyce Kim Lee’s costumes — notably a hilarious red bathrobe worn by Garson to represent Graham’s fantasies — add charm and flavor. Tom Buderwitz’s atmospheric set design ranges from the somber green wallpaper, sofa and chairs in the sad first scene to the brightly lit stone patio, wicker chairs, red geraniums and trellises of the production’s memorable concluding moments.