The cultural chasm between an elderly apartment-dwelling couple and the noisy Gen X youth one floor up is only a starting point for “3F, 4F,” the Victor Lodato play that completes — and easily climaxes — Magic Theater’s “Hot House” mini-season of new works. This peculiar, jarring, altogether fascinating whatsit of a drama starts in an absurdist comedy mode that is finally complemented (rather than replaced) by a yowl of despair as heartrending as it is unexpected. Given a superb premiere production by director Pam MacKinnon, the dark yet deeply empathetic, economical yet complex script should mark Lodato as a potentially major playwright in progress.
Creepy-hilarious linguistic repetition in successive opening sequences reveals the populations of two horizontally adjacent flats as generational stereotypes pushed to near-surreal extremes. Downstairs, Myrna (Wanda McCaddon) and Alfred (Edward Sarafian) are so prissily of-another-era, their mid-Atlantic accents suggest past service in suburban Noel Coward revivals. They’re as clean, dry and politely showcased in their tasteful living room as dinosaur bones in a museum; encroaching senility has turned their badinage into badminton for semi-blind players.
Alfred’s crumbling gentility seems particularly prone to absent-mindedness, while Myrna still has Katharine Hepburn-like moments — exacerbated by thesp’s considerable resemblance to later-life Hep — of barbed wit, such as, “Fat people don’t wrinkle … it’s one of life’s savage inequities.”
While this dusty duo has been in residence for nearly four decades, 24-year-old Murph (Daniel Talbott) moved in upstairs just a month ago. Shaggy, slobbish, his brusque speech peppered with the F-word, his all-around hostility barely accommodates the frequent visits of loyal (only?) friend Kurt (Ian Scott McGregor), a goofball Ed Norton to Murph’s Ralph Kramden.
Murph is in an even worse mood than usual because his always volatile temper drove away a girlfriend whom he might or might not have loved; regardless, the pain of having blown a rare chance for intimacy is excruciating.
Hence Murph can’t sleep. He first meets Alfred when the latter makes a timorous request that loud rock music be turned down. They meet again when Murph is tripping hard on acid. Intermission arrives on the shocking brink of an attempted sex act. When the curtain rises again, the older man has been severely beaten.
Meanwhile, both Kurt and Myrna fall under the sway of a “love community” whose representative, rollerskating buxom blond Khula (Cassie Beck), dangles the promise of escape to a paradise of isolated tropical passion and enchantment — for those who can cough up $5,000. Is she spokewoman for a genuine “nonprofit” utopia? Shill for a New Age religious cult? A con woman fronting a large-scale scam? Is she simply the hallucinated manifestation of lonely people’s deepest yearnings? (Notably, she’s never seen interacting with other characters, only proselytizing in a beatific spotlight.)
In a second act full of surprises, Myrna and Alfred reveal — or, rather, faintly remember — the mutually repressive circumstances under which they were married, an arrangement that tamped down “inappropriate” tendencies on both sides. Kurt’s imminent departure for some fantastical love-land provokes a desperate emotional display from Murph. And apartments 3F and 4F finally exchange residents in a pathetic and oddly redeeming way.
Director MacKinnon has a lock on the simultaneous comic grotesquerie and poignancy that Lodato’s script requires; the performers could hardly be better. Talbott is particularly impressive as the character with the most dramatic arc, but McGregor steals comic honors.
Unlike the prior two Magic “Hot House” productions, which shared dully minimalist design elements, this one has an effective two-tier set that etches both apartments in generation-defining terms.