As a blurb it sounds bizarre: In a country-tinged musical at Playwrights Horizons, two friends — a fortysomething man and 20-year-old woman — care for each other deeply and well. They never fight or even kiss. They just offer undemanding love as life hurls hardships at each of them. That setup flouts the idea that conflict means antagonism, and it’s what makes “Floyd and Clea Under the Western Sky” so compelling. The tuner, which preemed last year at Chicago’s Goodman Theater, finds life in a type of relationship almost never seen onstage.
Not that these singer-songwriter pals have perfect lives. Texas native Floyd (played by Brit thesp David Cale, who wrote the book and lyrics and co-wrote the music) hasn’t had a gig in years, and now he’s a drunk who lives in his car, unsure how he’ll survive the Montana winter. Clea (Mary Faber) dreams of musical stardom, but she’s chased by the memory of her suicidal father.
The conflict is with inner demons, not between the characters themselves. From their first chance meeting in a parking lot, Floyd and Clea always get along. The action comes as they learn how to use their friendship to fight the outside world.
The production takes a languid pace, letting each scene develop one small facet of the central relationship. Some may find this frustrating, since it’s not always clear how one moment builds off the next, but the pieces eventually form a satisfying picture of how Floyd and Clea save each other’s lives.
Along the way, creatives offer much to savor. Director Joe Calarco stages the show like it’s full of secrets. He lets lengthy silences sit between bursts of Cale’s casual dialogue, so Floyd and Clea always seem able to communicate without words.
Calarco also tucks scenes into corners of the stage — including one muffled moment set in Floyd’s car — which give the impression that we’re privy to something private and meaningful.
Often, we are. Cale tracks everything from drug abuse to failed careers, and his writing matches the production’s subtlety. The finale has one false moment of melodrama, but it doesn’t last long.
Tonal shifts arrive with the songs, whose gravelly blues evoke Lucinda Williams. Performed concert-style toward the audience, they provide emotional context without literally advancing the story.
A major conceit is that Floyd and Clea do not see the onstage band that accompanies every number. When Clea plays Floyd a ditty called “Greedy,” it’s clear he hears only her guitar and not her backing music. This makes the band a metaphor representing the sound in Clea’s head.
Designers enhance the band’s importance. Musicians sit between massive snow banks, bathed in red light, as though they’re melting the snow. Their music becomes a symbol of Floyd and Clea’s friendship, thawing out the chill of their lonely lives.
Faber’s voice alone could warm up the winter. She has the pipes to make Clea’s success believable, and her nuanced acting shows a woman who stops wanting Floyd to replace her father and instead just wants him in her life.
But it’s Cale’s perf that lingers in the mind. Like a flower falling open, Floyd gains confidence in steps so small it’s almost shocking to see the man he’s become by the final song. It’s gratifying, too, since Cale makes him sweet, with his hand flying to his chest in a moment of concern or his Texas drawl cracking when he asks his friend how she’s been. Like the show itself, Floyd has an unassuming presence that bursts with beauty all the same.