How do we find ourselves in love? After sifting through the twisted wreckage of human hang-ups and emotions, the answer isn’t always pretty; sometimes it’s downright ugly. But the search to feed the flames of the heart is a guaranteed hoot through the mind’s eye of New York playwright (and Oscar-winning screenwriter of Moonstuck) John Patrick Shanley. On stage through this weekend at Planet Ant Theatre in Hamtramck are six short, rough-edged and gratifying Shanley explorations in Welcome to the Moon and Other Plays.
This drama-train eases you into a sweet-stolen-kiss mood with John (Patrick O’Connor Cronin) and Mary (Shannon Ferrante) in The Red Coat, the most straightforward — and perhaps least memorable — play of the bunch. The awkward, sincere confessions under the moonlight go down like a piece of angel food cake next to the slapping satires to come.
Beginning with Down and Out, director Alexis Williams and her cast pump out the laughs from Shanley’s impeccable text. Dressed in rags and heartache are a poet (Eric Maher) and his love (Morgan Chard), continually harassed by a villainous man (John Maxwell) in an overcoat who confiscates the poet’s library card — and his last ounce of hope. Shanley plays with tragic archetypes, pushing them to the edge of high drama, then into Woody Allen-style high comedy. It’s a touchy recipe of classic speech and symbol juggling that somehow allows the characters to wallow in decrepitude while mugging for laughs.
Most of Williams’ cast muscles through the material with refreshing sincerity and spark, but Maher and Chard are the guts of the production. The two have chemistry. Their comic appeal is pushed to its peak as the tormented couple in Let Us Go Out Into the Starry Night, in which a woman sits at a table and argues with a balloon-headed figure until she catches sight of a young man with grotesque ghosts and monsters hovering about him. She decides to leave her bubble-headed friend for a shot at happiness, no matter how hopeless it looks. By materializing the man’s and woman’s internal mental states around their tables, Shanley makes courtship look frightening, but the couple discovers that, when timing and magic are right, mental monsters can be conquered and replaced with peace of mind under a full moon.
From Bronx accents sobbing over empty tequila tumblers and unrequited love in Welcome to the Moon to lost and found mermaids under plastic pumpkin lanterns in Lonely Impulse of Delight, Shanley swings his audience around deep romantic wounds without leaving it in the dark.
Out West dishes out a bellyful of irony in a tightly wound, western tale that plays with the hopes in your heart like a dry desert wind tosses a tumbleweed. A hop-a-long, happy-go-lucky cowboy marvels at the wonders of his open-air life under stars, “... like busted bits of moon” while a young girl laments, “I live in a coffin called a room ... a graveyard called a town. …” The opposites are drawn to each other, but complications set in when Beer Hall Betsy offers the cowboy a drink and a promise for upstairs, and a wronged brother (Jacob Plante) is out for blood. In this work Shanley shoves the contents of a full-length western epic inside a teaspoon of drama, his pared-down dialogue potent and powerful.
After a bout with Shanley’s inspirational affairs and dramatic excursions, it’ll be up to you to decide whether love is the most wicked and relentless emotion to plague the planet or the answer to all your prayers upon the stars.
Performances continue May 7-8 at 8 p.m. and May 9 at 2 p.m. at Planet Ant Theatre (2357 Caniff Ave, Hamtramck). Call 313-365-4948. Reservations recommended.Anita Schmaltz writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]