Paul Weitz, who shot to fame with “American Pie,” has a thing for compulsive overachievers who flame out on the pyre of their own ambitions. Scribe returns to the subject he took up in “Trust” and “Privilege” with his new play, “Lonely, I’m Not,” the tragicomic tale of a corporate “ninja” struggling to pull himself together after a nervous breakdown. Weitz confers his engaging gift of gab on this semi-catatonic hero, Topher Grace plays him with boundless charm in helmer Trip Cullman’s inventive production, and love-interest Olivia Thirlby gives him reason to live. Second Stage scores again.
Our hero’s sad story is told in a succession of brief scenes that move swiftly, end on a punchline, and are followed by a blackout. If that sounds suspiciously like the outline of a sitcom, helmer Cullman and a top-of-the-line design team slickly translate it into theatrical vernacular.
Instead of trying to disguise the play’s episodic nature, the creatives punch it up. The strong horizontal line of Mark Wendland’s set visually bisects the stage, assigning the bottom strip to staging areas and the top half to Matt Frey’s ingenious lighting effects. Titles supplied by the playwright to indicate the scene topics — in no-nonsense terms like “Mom” and “Caffeine” and “Train Wreck” — appear in giant letters outlined by high-intensity LED lights that are stacked in full view behind a scrim.
The lighting design is such fun to follow, the scenes get laughs before they even begin.
Topher Grace, interrupting a movie career to make his Off Broadway debut, brings his irresistible appeal to Porter, who was making seven figures in the grubby world of high finance when he had his meltdown. But that was four years ago, and there’s no sign today of the ruthless financier who was famous for leaving “a trail of corporate corpses” behind him when he did business.
Porter hasn’t held a job in those four years; he’s hardly even been out of his apartment. But he senses the stirrings of life and bravely applies for a job as a second-grade teacher. That interview doesn’t go so well, in part because of Porter’s interest in teaching Singaporean mathematics to the tykes. But that early scene efficiently captures Weitz’s quirky dialogue and absurdist style.
Porter’s next heroic move is going on a blind date with, well, a date who’s blind. The mutual friend who set up this date with an entertainment industry analyst named Heather (Olivia Thirlby) didn’t happen to mention that she’s been blind since she was two. Porter is actually relieved, because if this lovely creature can’t see him, she can’t judge him.
But if Heather can’t see what a basket case Porter is, neither can he see the high anxiety behind her driving ambition and fanatical self-reliance. So they make a good couple, these wounded birds, with Thirlby’s assertively smart portrayal of Heather a nice contrast with Grace’s sweetly insane take on Porter. As the friend who set them up shrewdly notes, “I thought you guys might hit it off. You’re both fucked up.”
Technically, nothing much happens during the course of the offbeat romance that develops between these two. A few passing complications are instigated by their respective parents (played by the reliable Lisa Emery and Mark Blum), and Heather’s interchangeable assistants (all drolly played by Maureen Sebastian) come and go with comic frequency, as do some funny characters played by Christopher Jackson.
But these are all amusing distractions rather than serious impediments to the fragile romance between Porter and Heather. The only real threat to their relationship is the tentative state of their mental health. That being the case, a lot hangs on the likeability of the central characters and the appeal of the actors in the roles. So, here’s something for anyone tempted to pick up this script to keep in mind — Grace and Thirlby don’t come with it.