Consider it a backhanded compliment to say that “Al’s Business Cards,” a sweet-tempered sitcom by Josh Koenigsberg, ends too soon. The twisty plot turns on complications that arise when a New Jersey print shop mixes up the business cards of a non-union electrician and a pretty real estate agent. Koenigsberg smartly shows that the mistakes and misunderstandings — both comic and hurtful — are largely based on assumptions about gender, class and ethnicity. But having made his larger point, the scribe neglects to resolve the dilemmas he’s raised for his characters, who have too much life in them to be hung out to dry.
Azhar Khan earns his Equity card with his funny and sensitive portrayal of Al Gurvis, an unlicensed electrician who upgrades himself to a “professional assistant gaffer” — and has the business cards printed out to prove it. With his limited smarts and uncertain ambitions, Al is the kind of working-class joe a young actor could easily patronize. But there’s not a hint of attitude from Khan, who gives Al the clumsy grace and hopeful grin of a guy who woke up this morning and discovered his pride in himself.
Too bad for Al that the print shop misprinted his profession, identifying him as a “professional assistant gasser.” To compound the indignity, they also switched his order with that of a real estate agent, Eileen Lee (the well-cast Lauren Hines), who is going through an ugly divorce and doesn’t need this headache, either.
When Al and Eileen get together to straighten out the mistake, they bring their personal baggage with them. Given his name, Eileen expects Al to be “white,” instead of half-Indian, while he assumed she was Asian, instead of a blonde daughter of the American South. Despite the awkward social situation, nobody actually gets hurt until Eileen’s vengeful ex-husband, Daniel (played with relish by Malcolm Madera), gets it into his head that Eileen and Al are lovers and hires a private detective to trap them.
As more characters involve themselves in the story, the prejudices build up, until everyone seems to have a hate for everyone else. Director Lauren Keating walks a fine line here, keeping the tone comic but encouraging her carefully cast thesps to explore the sad side of their characters’ lives — and the dark side of their casual bigotry.
The emotional payoff comes in the well-balanced scenes in which Eileen encourages Al to move out of his apartment (which he admits is “sort of a shithole”) and into something more suitable for a “professional assistant gaffer.” When she introduces him to an upscale restaurant, Khan puts a lot of feeling into Al’s judgment call: “Fancy.” Hines has her moment when she attributes Eileen’s drinking to “the pain of monotonous living.”
Keating and company give Koenigsberg exactly what his play needs — a solid feeling for the characters whose fates the playwright leaves unresolved. But Khan gives him more — a sad-sack hero so likable you don’t want to let him go.