“Unfinished American Highwayscape # 9 & 32,” Carlos Murillo’s fitfully inspired new play, is being given a sensitive and detailed world premiere at Pasadena’s Boston Court theater. But underneath the studied performances and high-gloss production values is a talky and static script in need of retooling.
The story — about lonely people wrestling with their troubled pasts and uncertain futures as they drive alone at night — teases us with tantalizing moments of angst and clear-eyed insight into the quiet desperation at the heart of the noisy American soul.
But there’s an insurmountable problem bedeviling Murillo’s play: It’s essentially a string of sedate monologues and dialogues. People sit in cars and describe the sources of their unhappiness rather than revealing them through action. The real villains of this piece are largely unseen; hence the absence of drama or conflict.
The characters themselves are interesting enough, and each one is meticulously portrayed. Delia (Carlease Burke) is trying to escape her blues-singing boyfriend, but God is playing a cosmic joke: Her broken car radio receives only one station, and it’s spinning her ex’s hit song constantly — the one that’s all about her.
Patrick Thomas O’Brien plays James, a nerdy schoolteacher from Hibbing, Minn., who wants to take his place among the town’s famous people and institutions (they include Bob Dylan and the Greyhound Bus Co.). His path to immortality, though, is an odd one: He is collecting fridge magnets.
James hooks up with Eleanor (Casey Kramer), a woman who’s escaping her philandering husband after decades of marriage. They hit it off at first, but his rash decision to sing one of his own songs — a rambling parody of Dylan’s worst excesses — causes Eleanor to change her mind about the value of freedom.
James and Eleanor’s scene is one of four couplings that form the latter part of this intermission-free production. They reveal many intricate relationships that link different characters and stories. Unfortunately, some links are more lucid and meaningful than others, and Murillo’s insistence on quick inter-cutting undermines comprehension and our grasp of the big picture.
Burke and O’Brien are standouts, but everyone enjoys his or her minute of glory; Murillo is generous to his performers, and director Jessica Kubzansky shows a master’s deft touch with scenes of epiphany and intense but hidden emotion.
Typical of Boston Court’s stagings, the production looks first-rate. Sibyl Wickersheimer’s set, distinguished by risers of various levels, ladders and upstage platforms, is spare but effective. Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting is artfully conceived for the most part, though he could have come up with a more creative solution than pairs of actor-held flashlights to represent nocturnal driving. Ann Closs-Farley’s costumes signal both poverty and occasional, defiant flamboyance, and John Zalewski’s sound design captures the uneasy calm of the heartland at night.