Thesp Gigi Bermingham’s laserlike concentration on the mechanics of fashioning lemon squares is reason enough to take in Kathryn Graf’s family drama “Hermetically Sealed,” enjoying a long run at the Skylight. Though the writing and helming are otherwise light on subtlety, Bermingham’s troubled pastry chef is a textbook example of that always essential but often violated Acting 101 principle: Do, rather than be.
It’d be easy for an actress to wallow in the distress of Tessie May, an abandoned spouse cooped up with louche older son Jimmy (Wolfie Trausch), a fancier of joyrides with older gay men, and foul-mouthed, videogame-addicted son Conor (Nicholas Podany). Helmer Joel Polis establishes an ominous mood within which each of Tessie’s elaborate dawn preparations for the day’s order, dessert for 150, takes on intimations of dread.
But Graf is so intent on protecting the family’s slowly revealed central secret as to make everything else spot-on and overly explicit. Tessie has to blast opera to show her desire to escape; Conor must be given his own aria, an unconvincing highfalutin rant, so we don’t miss the fact he’s precocious.
A more heinous example: In advance, Conor warns us that Tessie’s employers are “two fat, wacky assholes.” Are we allowed to decide for ourselves? Nope, they instantly live up to billing. The catering queen (Julia Prud’homme), her mouth full, spouts Christian new-agey self-help blather (religious belief being today’s favored shortcut for authorial ridicule), while husband Dale Sr. (Brendan Patrick Connor) is just a leering lout. Graf will not rise to the next division of playwrighting until she’s willing to find multiple levels of humanity in all her creations, however vile.
Polis compounds the problem by indulging his players (except for Bermingham, and Trausch briefly) in extremes of behavior and volume from the get-go. Particularly hard-hit is Podany, a gifted, expressive young man who needs to learn we want to see characters fight off breakdowns, not give in to them.
Anything hermetically sealed loses its potency as soon as the lid is popped, and Podany pops his in scene one in a torrent of online verbal violence. Its recurrence undercuts the tender, understated moments he eventually pulls off.
Yet back in the kitchen, Tessie/Gigi just goes about her business, slicing up mangoes to demonstrate how she herself is sliced up. She knows how to reveal heartbreak while revealing the best way to create circular tarts (put flour on the cutter; dip and shake). When her hermetically sealed psyche breaks open, it’s with classical Greek intensity, but it wouldn’t happen without all those specific culinary touches. As with Jeff McLaughlin’s meticulously photorealistic set, the angel is in the details.