by Hugh Hunter
“Why are you like an almond” Tilly asks Frank. Frank is understandably flummoxed, and so begins “Melancholy Play: A Contemporary Farce” now running at Allens Lane Theater.
Under the Latin name “amygdalae,” almonds are listed in “Gray’s Anatomy” as “a distinctively shaped pair of nuclei in the brain’s temporal lobe intimately involved in processing emotion.” We hear a lot about almonds here, as emotions are everyone’s nemesis.
The lead character Tilly sows constant confusion just by being her natural, emotional self. A bank teller somewhere in Illinois, Tilly is ordered to seek treatment because she hates happy people. “Their smiles are so noisy,” she says.
But attending psychiatrist Lorenzo (Andrew Albitz) cannot resist the sexy allure of her sadness. Frank (Daniel McLaughlin) falls in love while hemming Tilly’s pants. Frances is smitten at the beauty salon, and her lesbian lover Joan (E. Ashley Izzard) is also won over.
But then comes the birthday party. After Tilly talks about a friend who writes newspaper obituaries, she becomes unaccountably happy. All her lovers then flip-flop into states of sadness. Frances falls into such deep despair that she metamorphoses into an almond.
How do you like those apples? “Melancholy Play” (2001) is an early work of playwright Sarah Ruhl, but it has her signature elements. It starts off with a nonsense question, then proceeds to layer in bizarre complications.
“Melancholy” has been widely produced as the script is fun-loving and gives theaters lots of leeway. Director M. Craig Getting makes the most of his opportunity. He condenses “Melancholy” into one act and keeps to a fast pace (show time, approximately 75 minutes).
Getting also transforms the Julian character (Hannah Gold). No longer a cello player, Julian now observes the action from behind a trellis, then plays phonograph recordings to match her changing moods — a vision of life as an attentive and responsive audience.
Kristen Egermeier is endearing in the starring role. Her Tilly is pretty and pert. Like Dorothy in Oz, Tilly looks out at a fantastical world with wide-eyed candor. But the fantasy lies not in the world’s landscape but in her own emotional turmoil. Tilly honors that turmoil, yet is responsive to what she stirs up in others.
“Melancholy Play” is charmingly silly. If you are looking for larger meaning, you search in vain. The play is content to rejoice in itself. Like an abstract version of “Seinfeld,” it is just happy to be about nothing, and nothing more.
With perhaps one exception. Most of the people who fall in love with Tilly’s sadness are orphans from Europe. It feels like a swipe at the vainglorious side of European angst. Instead of “farce,” maybe the subtitle should be “revenge of an American absurdist.”
Allens Lane Theater is located at Allens Lane near McCallum Street in West Mt. Airy. “Melancholy Play: A Contemporary Farce” will run through March 23. Reservations available at 215-248-0546.
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