In the 1950s and ’60s, filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini luxuriated over the plights of sad-eyed damsels who could never quite rise out of their perpetual ennui. Mining this concept for laughs, Sarah Ruhl has fashioned an uneven but potentially entertaining farce centered on a quirky woman whose perpetual state of melancholy has a devastating effect on the people around her. Helmer Chris Fields and a miscast ensemble aim for the yocks but never quite grasp the rudiments of Ruhl’s off-kilter satire.
Set in nondescript Normal, Ill., “Melancholy Play” is a meditation on the elusive nature of one person’s vague discontent and how it plays on those who consider themselves to be normal and happy. Underscored by the exquisite musicianship of onstage cellist Julian (Joseph Mendoes), the action centers on comely bank teller Tilly (Polly Noonan). She projects an aura of such sweet sorrow that she captures the heart of her psychiatrist, Lorenzo (Karl Wiedergott); her tailor, Frank (Rob Helms); her hairdresser, Frances (Kristina Lear); and Frances’ roommate-lover, nurse Joan (Marilyn Dodds Frank).
In contrast to the title, the scenario is anything but somber. Ruhl has imbued the work with a lighthearted absurdist touch that ranges from clever to ridiculous to wicked as Tilly obliterates and then reconstructs the psyches of everyone around her.
In the first act, Ruhl successfully mocks the style of those Bergman/Fellini films and their tendency toward tremendous gravity. Unfortunately, the second act loses its farcical vigor with Ruhl’s lengthy surrealistic riff on melancholy people turning into almonds.
Fields’ heavy-handed, overwrought staging fails to properly underscore Ruhl’s thematic throughline. The ensemble members hit all the punchlines with resonance and vigor, but they nearly obliterate the discordant character evolution that has to occur when Tilly evolves from a lady of woe to a giddily happy woman.
Much of the problem lies in the central perf. Noonan is attractive enough, but there is little variation in her manic portrayal, whether Tilly is sad, happy, angry or anguished. The whole production is driven by Tilly’s self-serving personality thrusts, and it’s not helped by Noonan’s disturbing tendency to talk at the other actors rather than to them.
The other characters, initially cheerful and content with their social usefulness, eventually are supposed to succumb to an obsession with Tilly and her charismatic fits of emotion. Noonan’s non-communication makes everyone’s motivations seem arbitrary and contrived.
The exception is Wiedergott, who vigorously throws himself into the role of Lorenzo, who’s from an unspecified European country and has an unspecified accent. Wiedergott hits the comic highpoints in Lorenzo’s hilarious reminiscences about being abandoned by his mother on the steps of a candy shop because he had “American eyes.” Though he is not as successful in his interactions with Tilly, he does manage to remain comically viable throughout.
The production’s deceptive aura of gloom is beautifully realized through the economical sets, lights and sound of Miguel Montalvo, Jeremy Pivnick and Cricket Myers, respectively. Special kudos go to the evocative original score of Michael Roth as performed by Mendoes.