Hollywood vet Garry Marshall had Hector Elizondo in mind for the pivotal role of misanthropic college dean Peter Ravenswaal when Marshall and Lowell Ganz penned “Wrong Turn at Lungfish” back in the late ’80s. But Marshall and Elizondo never could work out a schedule for the thesp to appear in this darkly comedic legiter. With an updated script and Marshall at the helm, “Lungfish” proves a more than worthy vehicle for Elizondo, who slips quite comfortably into the persona of the irascible prof. The production is further enhanced by an outstanding supporting ensemble, especially Ana Ortiz as unapologetic lowlife Anita, who insinuates herself into Peter’s psyche.
Set in a private hospital room in Gotham, action follows the machinations of Peter, recently blinded by an infliction that will most likely kill him. His only recreation has been tormenting his attending student nurse (an endearing Joanna Canton) until he is confronted by working-class waif Anita, who has volunteered to read to him. Despite the vast sociointellectual chasm that separates them and Anita’s own self-serving agenda, this May/December odd couple develop a captivating synergistic relationship that significantly changes both their lives.
Elizondo perfectly exudes Peter’s mounting comical frustration as his erudite invectives and intellectual ranting have no effect on Anita. Frustrated by her lack of understanding of his barbed sense of humor, he explains, “I was being facetious.” Her response: “Is that like horny?”
In a beautifully honed portrayal, Ortiz’s Anita simply absorbs all the verbal abuse with a good-natured shrug and embarrassed giggle. Exhibiting a mind-boggling lack of self-esteem, Anita, whose life has been dominated by a series of brutish men, expects to be insulted as a condition of life. Only when Peter projects mild physicality by pulling her hair does her deeply sublimated hatred of her victimization comes gushing forward in a torrent of tears and recrimination.
Marshall correctly keeps the reins on Elizondo and Ortiz through the first act, making sure this magnetic duo don’t outrace the text. It is a fascinating pas de deux as Peter is often left dumbfounded by Anita’s street-level philosophies about life and God.
The second act makes a dynamic shift with the introduction of Anita’s abusive, manipulative boyfriend Dominic, played to the wiseguy hilt by Jason Gedrick. Dominic’s scheme to use Anita to scam Peter and then go on the lam is a plot shift that offers some rewards but is not nearly as involving as the first-act dynamics between Peter and Anita.
Offering an impressive environment for the production is the perfectly wrought hospital setting by Keith E. Mitchell, enhanced by the evocative lighting of Jeremy Pivnick.