An engaging blend of wit and whimsy spiced with a smidgen of playful profundity, James Still’s “Searching for Eden: The Secret Diaries of Adam and Eve” proves a low-key charmer in its regional premiere at Stages Repertory Theater. Obviously, good news travels fast: Favorable buzz generated the largest advance sale in the Houston theater’s history, prompting Stages to extend the comedy’s run by more than a month even before opening night.
The two-act two-hander — loosely based on the Bible by way of Mark Twain — might perform similar miracles elsewhere, provided other productions are blessed with equally adroit players and comparably savvy direction.
Still draws heavily from two tongue-in-cheeky Twain stories — “Extracts From Adam’s Diary” and “Eve’s Diary” — as inspiration for a first act set in the Garden of Eden. The easygoing and incurious Adam (Thomas Prior) is introduced as a slacker who’s quite comfortable in his solitude.
Nonstop chatterbox Eve (Deborah Hope), however, is indefatigably amazed by the wonders around her, and obsessively determined to give everything a name. For example: When she sees two birds rubbing beaks together, she immediately decides they’re “kissing.” Why? Well, because she thinks the word sounds nice. And, besides, what else would anyone call it?
The two leads generate a pleasingly sharp sense of seriocomic tension as they alternately attract and repel each other. Hope neatly balances wide-eyed innocence with blunt-force self-confidence as Eve tries to domesticate Adam. Prior provides perfect counterbalance as an easily exasperated Adam, who’s turned off by his partner’s clingy need for companionship but eventually warms to the notion that “kissing” — among other things — can make life in Eden more enjoyable.
Oddly, the first act ends with the first couple’s banishment from Eden shortly after they admit to their true feelings about each other. Inadvertently or otherwise, Still appears to suggest that falling in love might be a fall from grace.
In any event, act two jumps ahead several millennia to find Adam and Eve, ageless but perhaps not immortal, taking a 21st-century return trip to Eden. (The place has become a luxury resort known only as “E.”)
By now, Adam is a marriage counselor with a demanding clientele, and Eve is a Hollywood executive, chronically glued to her cell phone. There is a slightly stale, sitcommish feel to some of the jokes engendered by the characters’ professions.
But there’s also a genuinely compelling emotional truth to the conversations Adam and Eve share as they wonder, like so many other couples, how to make the magic last. At one point, Adam muses: “If you’re lucky, you find someone to spend your life with. And if you’re really lucky, you find someone you want to spend your life with.”
Prior and Hope are impressively adept at persuasively aging without an over-reliance on make-up effects, so that they come across in act two as middle-aged, slightly melancholy versions of act one’s youthfully vibrant Adam and Eve. They seem not so much older and wiser as wistful and resigned. And they do much to make the shamelessly sentimental ending (also borrowed from Twain) genuinely affecting.
Under Rob Bundy’s smoothly sensitive direction, the Stages production is consistently fleet and funny. There’s a nifty Pop Art look to Kirk Markley’s set design, with Astroturf and bright plastic flowers used to amusing effect in an eye-catching Eden.