Lucky Me, A Romantic Comedy, by Robert Caisley. Directed by Phil Rice. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Author Robert Caisley - Is this the new face of American comedy?
". . .a decided lack of pungency."
Colleen Lovett, John Noble; photo: Phil Rice
In Robert Caisley's 2013 romantic comedy, "Lucky Me," now on stage at the Theater Barn in New Lebanon, NY, comedy takes an abrupt and surprising left-hand turn on its way to near tragedy. Leo Fine, a cantankerous, rude and abruptly insulting older man, swallows his adult daughter's pet fish in a crude attempt at suicide, crude because the man's senility is very much in question. Caisley has set this secondary character in a romantic comedy on the route to an ever-more dominating position as leading man much earlier in the play, but this scene which comes late in the second act cements that place for him. The play is no longer about a young man in love with a troubled young woman; it is about her father, his motives, his sanity, his needs and his fears of living a lonely old-age abandoned by everyone who could possibly care for him.
I know this doesn't sound very funny. At times it isn't. And then, at times it is. Quirkiness seems to be Caisley's stock-in-trade. His sense of "funny" is just that: funny as in odd, as in weird, as in intractable. In short the story deals with the wooing by Tom, a TSA Agent, of Sara Fine, a woman whose luck is all bad and who cannot, or will not, deal with the realities of her life. At the center of her existence is Leo, her father, legally though emotionally blind - the result of his own failure to protect his dying wife. On the perimeter are men she has loved, men who have loved her. She feels herself to be cursed and her daily life seemingly proves that theory.
One of her favorite words is "fickle" and in her world everyone and everything including her goldfish is fickle. Primarily what is untrue to her is the fickle finger of fate that writes her story in sharply angled penmanship that allows for no person to reverse her course. That is until Tom, a neighbor discovers her and sets out to change the course of her luck. It is a long, hard, uphill climb for him and Sara and they do not share the same path.
Luckily for this production some excellent talent prevails. Colleen Lovett is an ideal Sara. She is pretty enough to inspire love, smart enough to hold love at bay, and generous enough to keep Leo at the center of her world in spite of his bad behavior. Lovett makes Sara a woman whose checked emotions are never far from the surface and who can explode with indignation one second and then twist that anger into almost contemplative resignation an instant later. She brings a wonderful agility to her role. She is vocally flexible and physically hilarious and dangerous. From her first awkward entrance to her final emotional dance-dip she is captivating.
Richard Lounello is a romantic figure when he's not in uniform and he is that uniform when he wears it. There is a consistency to his interpretation of Caisley's romantic hero, always attractive even when exhibiting mild traits of madness telling the story of a woman and a golf club. He never overplays the romantic imagery, but keeps a true reality in his acting in this role. His Tom is a loveable man, but he shows us how love and honesty can be an uneasy mixture at times.
In the role of the apartment building owner and handyman, Toby Wherry underplays his best moments, holding the laughs at bay as he gives an honest portrayal of this man. The performance is lifted off the stage through his quiet responses and his character's avaricious manner. He is fun and that helps any comedy keep things real.
It is the very fine work playing Leo that brings John Noble into the leading man role in this play. The play is about Leo and his needs and his manipulation of his daughter. Noble literally takes the reigns in hand, the bit between his teeth, and gives us a hard, almost inhuman being, and he makes us pay attention to him all the time. He is almost never off-stage and when he is we sit in wonder, hoping he'll take the stage once again and horrify us with his behaviour. Leo is never nice, but he is pitiable. He is never good, but he is good at that. This character is a man who knows how to get the reactions he craves so that he can belittle any temporary opponent. What Noble does with this can only be appreciated in person. In spite of his overwhelming meanness, Noble gives us the comedy in the writing, delighting us to feverish laughter now and again. If I didn't hate the character so much, this Leo could make me love him for his sincerity and his determination. Noble abandons all hope of being recognized in the role and in doing so he brings to ugly life a man whose like we have rarely, if ever, seen before.
Much of the credit for all of this goes to director Phil Rice whose own sense of what is comedy brings the play to the heights of that element. He finds ways to make funny lines catch us and provoke us while making us hate ourselves just a little bit for reacting to the often sick humor. His work on this play is exemplary.
Aided by appropriate costumes by Jade Campbell on a comfortably familiar apartment set designed by Abe Phelps with often very creative and compelling lighting by Todd Allen, Rice keeps our attention on this very oddball play.
Is Caisley's the new face of comedy writing for the stage, replacing Neil Simon, replacing Ken Ludwig, replacing everyone else as his comedy warps into being? I would need to see more of his work to adequately answer that question, but from the remarkable production of this play locally I might risk saying that "yes," his face might be just that, a new direction for the American play.
Lucky Me plays at The Theatre Barn, 654 Route 20, New Lebanon, NY through September 24. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-794-8989 or go on line at www.theaterbarn.com.