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Theatre in Review: Ordinary Days (Keen Company/Theatre Row)

Kyle Sherman, Sarah Lynn Marion. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Adam Gwon is back, and it's nice to have him around again. In 2009, the talented Mr. Gwon made a splash with Ordinary Days -- book, lyrics, and score by him -- and one assumed that we would soon be hearing from him regularly. According to his program bio, he has been laboring mightily elsewhere -- in regional theatre, video, and on cruise ship entertainments -- but nothing more has come our way. Fortunately, Jonathan Silverstein's swift, light-handed revival of this beguilingly oddball chamber musical -- with its sideways slant on New York life and its sometimes-precious, sometimes-devastating look at loners trying to make a connection -- is, arguably, better than the original production; it's a potent reminder of his singular talent.

Ordinary Days is a slender tale of four New Yorkers, circa 2007, intriguingly constructed as a pair of plotlines that don't intersect until the eleven o'clock number. (The characters repeatedly pass each other without making contact.) One thread features Warren, a young, directionless gay man; he is currently house- and cat-sitting for a noted downtown artist who, thanks to his habit of painting "pithy sayings" on various public spaces, is currently doing jail time. In tribute to his benefactor's vision, Warren passes the day handing out notes containing similar pensées to passing strangers. The effort is doing little to alleviate his native loneliness, since most busy pedestrians walk on by, convinced that he is little more than a kook.

Warren's luck changes, sort of, when he finds a note belonging to Deb, a graduate student straining to write a novel thesis about Virginia Woolf. A refugee from "the middle of nowhere," she is hell-bent on becoming someone special, yet starting to wonder if the route to success passes through academe. Her laptop is failing, so, rather than calling Geek Squad, she has reverted to keeping "longhand notes and xeroxed scraps/in a hand-bound book that drips with old-school flair." Losing it, she falls into a panic, as her adviser has made clear that no late submissions will be accepted.

Meanwhile, Claire and Jason, who have been dating for a year or so, are about to move in together -- and Claire is feeling more pensive than excited. Making room for Jason's things, she dutifully packs up her old clothes and other items; lingering over a sweater, she muses, "It's so very strange/Finding stuff from a lifetime ago/Even when the life you find is yours." Indeed, living together proves to be a fraught project: Although they declare their mutual affection, they're trying much too hard. Claire puts them through a rigorous ritual of echt New York experiences gleaned from a magazine -- they range from eating a bagel to attending a Broadway show and taking trapeze lessons -- an effort that only highlights their many differences. A trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art finds them drawn to separate wings. An argument about choosing wine for dinner spins out of control, ending in a de facto split, without either of them realizing exactly why.

As it happens, Warren and Deb are at the Met on the same Saturday. Rather than just arranging a quick drop-off of the found notebook, Warren talks Deb into meeting at the museum, hoping they can get to know each other. Deb, who doesn't suffer fools gladly, is instantly put off by Warren's almost beagle-like craving for affection. She offers to buy him a cup of coffee, and overwhelmed by his delighted response, adds, "You're gay, right?" "Yes," he says. "Okay," she adds. "Twenty minutes."

And so it goes, with Warren platonically wooing Deb -- who, in her increasing panic, hops a train to New Jersey, where she nearly leases a small-town apartment -- while Jason tries and tries to please Claire while constantly wondering why he can't. Claire, putting herself and Jason through that series of strenuously "fun" experiences, sums up the effort at the heart of their affair: "In my head, I draw a map/That shows the whole entire city/I put a mental pushpin/at the places where we laugh." Warren, trying to ingratiate himself with Deb, sings, hopefully, but with a dying fall, "Yes, I knew right away you'd be someone to meet/It's not every day I'm convinced so completely/But something is telling me/We're on the trail/Of a semi/Could be/Quasi/Sort of/Fairy tale." Deb, on the subway, starting to freak out over the lost notebook, muses, "I don't remember the Muppets getting hives/When they took Manhattan/But my own diagnosis/Is I'm creeping toward psychosis/'Cause I cannot find a place to get/Calm." In "Hundred-Story City," Jason sings of Claire, "She's why I'm one out of a hundred million people/Sticking out the angry cars/The crowded streets, the lack of stars./Putting up with so much/That it's all a blur./And that's what I've been doing/Just to be with her." Sometimes Gwon's music skips wittily, nervously over the surface of difficult situations; more often, it is shot through with longing.

The two narratives finally come together when Warren and Deb, each realizing he or she has been pursuing a dead end, fling both his art-project notes and the pages of her thesis off the top floor of Warren's temporary home. Claire, caught in the flurry of falling papers, has the epiphany that lays bare her emotional block with Jason. Because the number that follows, "I'll Be Here," is fast becoming a cabaret favorite, having been recorded by the likes of Audra McDonald and Liz Callaway, many members of the audience will have guessed Claire's secret, but it doesn't matter; the song's delicate handling of a still-recent tragic event packs a gut punch. Whitney Bashor, who combines Grace Kelly looks with a seriousness of intent that indicates Claire means business, handles the song with a remarkable restraint that only adds to its power.

Like Bashor, the other cast members hone in on their characters' broken hearts without overplaying. Kyle Sherman's Warren is the sort of eternal innocent who keeps believing in people despite abundant evidence to the contrary; there's a slightly furtive look in his eye, as if to say, You wouldn't want to like me, would you? His innate restraint keeps Warren from coming off as a collection of cutesy enthusiasms. Sarah Lynn Marion's Deb has a veneer of toughness -- thunderclouds of dissatisfaction form whenever she is thwarted -- over a confused, frightened soul. (The look of distaste with which she greets a Met Museum map that provides no guidance whatsoever is a comic highlight.) Marc delaCruz's Jason is wiry and filled with good energy, yet behind his permanent smile is the nagging sense that the clock is running out on his love affair with Claire.

With locations all over Manhattan -- and one or two elsewhere -- Ordinary Days isn't the easiest show to design, and I can't say that Steven Kemp's scenic solution -- a series of box-like frames with scrim surfaces -- is ideal, even with the colorful geometric lighting patterns provided by Anshuman Bhatia. (One inventive touch is a series of LED tape strips affixed diagonally across the set, providing an additional touch of color.) Then again, Jennifer Paar's costumes are thoroughly on target: She dresses Warren like a little boy, in primary colors, including a shirt that looks like a dozen Rubik's Cubes cut open and splayed across a fabric surface; Deb's first outfit -- combining a faux-fur leopard-print coat, black tights, red plaid skirt, Mickey Mouse T-shirt, and red boots -- is the definitive statement of a young woman who wants to stand out, at all costs. Alex Hawthorn's sound design is admirably transparent and intelligible.

Throughout, Gwon crosscuts between the stories deftly, weaving them together in lovely vocal quartets that help us to see that, in some essential way, these characters constitute four of a kind. Seen in 2009, Ordinary Days seemed like a promissory note from a fresh new talent. Seen nine years later, it is a fine reminder why, thanks to so many fresh voices, these are halcyon days for the musical. Now can somebody sign Gwon to a new stage project? -- David Barbour

(22 October 2018)

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