Marin Theater Company had a hit last season with the West Coast debut of New York playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer’s first professional offering, “The Last Schwartz,” a sharp and snappy comedy of grownup-sibling rivalry wrapped in a communal Jewish identity crisis. The much-anticipated world premiere of her second play, “Fortune,” smiles less brightly. The New York-centered romantic comedy, which weighs destiny and free will in the unlikely relationship between a jaded medium and a lonely accountant, offers light laughs and a production graced by two enjoyable performances, but stretches its storyline thinly over two patchy acts.
Maude (Julia Brothers), aka Madame Rosa, is a burned-out, third-generation fortuneteller, a true clairvoyant with a blunt tableside manner. Holed up in her apartment-cum-seance parlor (Steven Coleman’s elemental set design suspends a semi-circular wall of gauzy fabric above Maude’s standard-issue medium’s table), hiding her face from customers behind the veil of her soothsayer getup, Maude stays away from a world she knows will only disappoint her.
Mother and grandmother long ago foretold her destiny up to the date and time of her death; knowing how her life will turn out has proven just as debilitating for Maude as blundering ahead without a third eye can be for others.
Jeremy (Darren Bridgett), for instance. A CPA and major nebbish in mortal dread of remaining alone forever, he’s worked up the courage to ask Madame Rosa about his future. (Bridgett’s deft performance suggests a hyper, fidgeting adolescent, in stark contrast to Brothers’ surface-cool loner with decidedly remote mothering instincts.)
Maude’s psychic trance describes a man socially stunted since childhood and the accidental death of his parents, with nothing to look forward to. When Jeremy produces a noose from his briefcase, Madame Rosa revises her prognosis: She now sees a certain redheaded woman in his long and happy future.
Maude’s lie — her first, we understand — breaches some compact with the spirit world, since the furniture throws a brief tantrum. Its more serious consequence is to put someone else’s fate in her hands — she’s soon obliged to somehow produce “the redhead” — and cast doubt on her own destiny, since saving Jeremy’s life proves the future can be altered after all.
While he clings puppy-like to Maude, she finds her defenses whittled down by his prominent nurturing side. Exasperated, she wonders, “So how long am I going to keep this idiot alive?” only to reflect that he really does make a very good cherry babka.
Life and love require the courage to risk loss, the moral goes, and courage comes by accepting nothing as inevitable except death. And a happy ending, of course — Laufer early on seeds the dialogue with coincidences suggesting a predestined affinity. Even so, “Fortune” might have teased us a bit more before that eventuality. The final bend in the road doesn’t offer much of a climax. Moreover, preceding scenes feel unevenly refined.
MTC artistic director Lee Sankowich’s production can sometimes make a virtue of this slapdash aspect. (When a thunderstorm sends a tree branch through Maude’s front door, for instance, it gives the frank impression of having been tossed by a stagehand.)
In the end, two sympathetic performances, and Laufer’s ear for humor and harmony in the clash of damaged personalities, are enough to suggest this slice of New York magical realism could have a decent life beyond the Bay Area – provided there’s some script-tightening in its future.