Aurora premiere bridges gap between comedy and Collapse

Feb 05

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Amy Resnick as Susan does an upward facing dog during a conversation with Gabriel Marin as David and Carrie Paff as Hannah in Allison Moore’s Collapse at the Aurora Theatre Company. Below: Aldo Billingslea is the enigmatic Ted, a stranger who gets to know Paff’s Hannah. Photos by David Allen

 

Sometimes things collapse. Sometimes buildings and bridges, things that are built to physically support us. And sometimes marriages and families, things that are meant to sustain and bolster us, crumble as well.

Both kinds of ruin are examined – sometimes to hilarious comic effect – in Allison Moore’s Collapse, a rolling world premiere at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company. The concept of a rolling premiere is essentially a collaboration, in this case with the National New Play Network and Curious Theatre in Denver and Kitchen Dog Theater in Dallas.

Director Jessica Heidt’s sharp, wildly entertaining production begins on rather a sly note. She has pitched her actors to an extreme level of discomfort, yet their goal is to appear perfectly normal and happy. It’s a total sitcom situation – living room set and all – as David (Gabriel Marin) attempts to inject the posterior of his wife, Hannah (Carrie Paff), with fertility drugs. Their chipper anxiety about the fertility process is masking something else. We don’t know what, but we sense it’s serious. He’s drinking too much, she’s worried about being laid off from her legal firm and there’s a shadow looming over their relationship.

The sitcom rhythms continue with the arrival of Hannah’s kooky sister from California, Susan (Amy Resnick) – why do all the kooks have to be from California? Sure enough, this one almost immediately announces her life as crumbled, so she’s moving back home to Minneapolis and will crash with her sister and brother-in-law for the foreseeable future. Then she starts doing yoga.

There’s nothing wrong with sitcom rhythms when they’re done well – and this trio of actors is superb. But there’s more to Moore’s play than what first appears. This is a rollicking comedy with decidedly serious undertones, and before too long, it feels like a drama – a beautifully written and produced drama – more than it does a sitcom. And that’s a wonderful thing.

The shadow looming over Hannah and David is actually, physically looming over them in Melpomene Katakalos’ set design. In addition to the spare settings for a living room, a diner or a support group, the intimate Aurora space is filled with pieces of a bridge – Minneapolis’ I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River, to be exact, the one that collapsed in August of 2007 and killed 13 and injured 145.

That horrific accident affected Hannah and David personally, and they have spent the last year and a half (the play is set in 2009) confronting and avoiding the issue, but mostly suffering through their own personal and matrimonial hell.

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Hannah is so on edge that when she meets the enigmatic Ted (Aldo Billingslea) at a support group meeting, she immediately falls under this Southerner’s spell. Is he a nice guy or a master manipulator? It’s hard to tell, and Billingslea’s smoothly sexy performance makes it almost impossible to know for sure. Listen to him croon, “Oh, I will be your bulldog” and you’ll gain a whole new appreciation for people from Georgia.

It’s amazing that from under the rubble of a collapsed bridge, a collapsed economy and collapsing relationships that Moore can find any laughs, but there are plenty in this brisk but fully satisfying 80-minute one-act. There’s silliness skittering over some serious darkness, but the play never feels frivolous. Those sitcom stereotypes that we see at the start of the show, deepen into richer characters than we might expect. Even Susan, the kook, whose every laugh is mined by the brilliant Resnick, earns our sympathy. Her West Coast spiritual facade is a kind of armor she wears to combat the constant string of failures in her life. She means well and will likely continue stumbling through the years, opening herself to the “universal flow.”

And Paff and Marin show us the real pain stabbing Hannah and David, and the real affection that brought them together in the first place. There’s a good marriage between good people at stake here, and you feel that acutely by play’s end. Things may collapse, but they can also be rebuilt.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Allison Moore’s Collapse continues through March 6 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $34-$45. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org for information.

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