June 3, 2005
It is whimsy, not sadness, that fuels Sarah Ruhl's trifling, occasionally touching chamber piece "Melancholy Play." Characters with fairy-tale outlines—a tailor (Rob Helms), a hairdresser (Kristina Lear), a nurse (Marilyn Dodds Frank), a shrink of "unspecified European" extraction (Karl Wiedergott)—circle the salon-like stage of the new Hayworth Theatre, freely declaiming or singing their feelings with the stubbornly self-involved candor of drama queens.
Their preferred emotional state is what one calls the "necessary bodily humor" of melancholy. And their main devotion is to Tilly (Polly Noonan), a swoony, free-spirited bank teller, newly arrived in town, who embodies that "sexy, sad feeling" like no one else.
Until, suddenly one day, she doesn't.
Perhaps the play's singular smiling perversity explains why this central transformation—from Tilly's ostensible mania for depression to her subsequent bursting bubbliness—barely registers. In director Chris Fields' sparkling, knowing production, it's all a put-on, and the difference between sad Tilly and happy Tilly is measured in volume, not emotional range.
The cast essays this candy-colored world—the sort of place in which adults at a birthday party play duck-duck-goose—with brittle earnestness and a delicate, nearly musical sense of timing. An onstage cellist (Joseph Mendoes) sits in a tux under a blue light and saws away passionately, providing both underscoring and accompaniment for composer Michael Roth's mock-chorales.
A later song memorably lists items that can trigger the dark moods of the title: windows, smells, slanting afternoon light. If Ruhl's play actually evoked rather than recited even a moment of genuine heartsickness, we might feel something more than bemused.
"Melancholy Play," Echo Theatre Company at the Hayworth Theatre, 643 Carondelet St., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 19. $15 and $20. (800) 413-8669 or www.echotheatrecompany.com. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.