Inside most first-rate playwrights of advancing years percolates a philosophical discourse on mortality and life’s purpose. With stars in perfect alignment we get Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” but more often, in works like Arthur Miller’s “Ride Down Mt. Morgan,” sentiment tends to muscle aside the scribe’s usual command of character and narrative interest. In the latter category at the La Jolla Playhouse is Terrence McNally’s “Unusual Acts of Devotion,” revised but evidently not enlivened after its 2008 Philadelphia premiere.
Occupying a Greenwich Village brownstone’s sweltering midsummer night’s roof are the sixth floor’s residents, wrapped up in an intricate — if rarely credible — skein of secrets and lies whose unraveling is meant to reveal the rock-solid foundation of an extended family.
This co-dependent crew includes an ancient denizen (Doris Roberts) given to fortunetelling; an aging gay tour guide (Richard Thomas) mourning his lover’s suicide; a jazz musician (Joe Manganiello) and sweet young thing (Maria Dizzia) celebrating their anniversary; and a hopped-up, blowzy teacher (Harriet Harris) back from rehab after bedding an underage student in homage to, or echo of, Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois.
Their individual traits seem as unlikely as their collective bonding.
At the same time, a young man (Evan Powell) mysteriously lurks atop a water tower while the building buzzes about a hunted serial killer. Actually he just proves to be the Angel of Death (in the vein of “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore,” Williams’ own time-to-go-soon opus), but as suggestively lit by Ben Stanton, Powell at least keeps us gripped and guessing.
Little else in the play’s 100 minutes qualifies as gripping. Whatever the characters’ reasons for coming to the roof, all stay primarily to bloviate: on the Village’s changing landscape; music’s power; and the ways we both damage and comfort each other throughout our seven ages of man.
There’s not much interaction in any dramatic sense. Though accusations are launched and expletives spat out, the barbs bounce off as if everyone were wearing Kevlar vests. That nothing much jars or even registers on the quintet — while helmer Trip Cullman’s staging endeavors to pump up the melodrama — contributes to the evening’s air of contrivance.
Cullman’s cast takes up firm residence on the sunny side of the street. Thomas never fully embraces the bitchery and self-absorption his lines exude, while Harris’ campy bonhomie is ill-suited to conviction as a seductress of four key male figures (two onstage and two off). Representing renewal, complete with baby on the way to prove Life Goes On, Manganiello and Dizzia bark their lines with vigor but little nuance.
Roberts’ comfy familiarity garners early laughs. But since the tenants profess to dislike the annoying Mrs. Darnell, expected comic clashes come to naught when all cater to her like a visiting grande dame.
The play couldn’t ask for a more handsome production, Stanton gradually and subtly ushering designer Santo Loquasto’s rooftop realism into a more magical vein.
Consolation is surely on McNally’s mind. But his characters’ quirks are too remote, and their behavior too far-fetched, for us to see ourselves clearly in their mirror.