A sigh runs around the gallery after the golfer sinks a perfect putt, and that was the sense at South Coast Repertory on Saturday night as the lights faded on the last image of Craig Lucas' "Blue Window." Lucas had brought it off.
He had set himself a task much like Chekhov's: to write a play where nothing out-of-the-ordinary happens, but where everything about the characters is revealed. And yet not everything. As after a good production of Chekhov, one leaves "Blue Window" aware that there is more to be said.
The mood is not Chekhovian. Think, rather, of a hip upscale comedy such as "Key Exchange." It's a soft Sunday night in New York, and Libby (Lisa Pelikan), a single woman in her 30s, is giving her first dinner party in her apartment. When did you move in? a guest asks. Four years ago, Libby answers. Ah, says the guest.
Libby's friends would know when she moved in, but these aren't exactly her friends, more like people she knows. (The only exception is Griever, her buddy from group--Brad O'Hare.) Moreover, we get the impression that she wasn't exactly dying to have them to dinner. It's a self-assignment to prove that she can cope.
Which Libby does. Her punch is a great success, people find things to talk about, dinner eventually gets served (a slight crisis here, but it is managed) and everybody stays until nearly 11 p.m. As Griever points out, for a Sunday night in New York that's a successful party.
It's also hopeful that one of the male guests stays to help with the dishes: not Griever, but Libby's sky-diving teacher Norbert (Chris Mulkey). As far as plot goes, that's it. Yet "Blue Window" doesn't leave the viewer hungry for more story. In its 90 minutes, it supplies a beautifully observed picture of people in their 30s and 40s beginning to make out the pattern of their lives; and the acting is as appreciative of each character's private self as is the writing.
We get to know everybody at the party, and not, I am happy to say, through soliloquies that the other characters aren't supposed to hear. That would be too easy. Rather, Lucas reveals his characters little by little, and often (the mark of a playwright who trusts actors) in silence.
For instance, there's a marvelous sequence of private moments that lead up to the party, with each character supposedly alone in his apartment. Except that they're really on the stage, facing us in company. So O'Hare as Griever makes stupid faces in the mirror while, a couple of feet away, Mulkey as Norbert works out. And, a few feet from him, Tuck Milligan as Tom, the composer, tries to work out the bridge of a new song on his guitar.
Again, this calls for trust that the audience will read Lucas' intention. We do, enjoying both the device and the confidence placed in us. The device is employed again at the end, revealing how each of the guests responded to the party. By that time, too, we have learned why Libby needed to take up sky diving. "Blue Window" might have been just as satisfying without that revelation, which smacks a bit of the unveiling of the secret in an Ibsen-style play, but Lucas isn't that much of an experimentalist.
The juice of the play is the party, which Lucas and director Norman Rene take great pains to make a party that most people will recognize, from the initial awkwardness about making introductions to the stage where it has clearly been established that everybody will probably get along, and people start to relax.
The talk is unexpectedly good. Even the quiet people at this party (including Maureen Silliman as the young composer's serene live-in) are no dummies. And the talkers are terrific, especially Jane Galloway as Boo, a family therapist. She realizes that it's up to her to start things off by being a little outrageous, so she starts by complimenting Libby on her tacky punch and goes on to do a Carson-style monologue on family therapy--the art of looking around to find someone else to blame.
But Boo isn't cynical, nor is her lover, Alice (Barbara Tarbuck), a novelist. Nor, for that matter, is anyone at the party. These people haven't reached burnout or disillusionment. There's something very willing, very young, about them still. One also notices--although Lucas may not--a total lack of interest in public affairs.
But they are bright as a tack, and Rene's actors make us see some spiritual aspirations there--they're not just trying to make it to the top of the heap. Beneath the gloss and the TV references (the one thing they all have in common is growing up with Ed Sullivan), we catch glimpses of deeper things. We hear Libby's secret, but it's easy to believe that her guests have them, too. In a way, everybody is alone at this party.
But, again, don't expect Chekhovian vapors. If these characters are lost, they're lost in a very American way. "Blue Window" has spirit, laughter and intelligence, and it is splendidly designed, with a blue-marble floor by Cliff Faulker, sensitive lighting by Paulie Jenkins and costumes-to-die-for by Shigeru Yaji. It's SCR's best party since "Top Girls."
Craig Lucas' play, at South Coast Repertory's Second Stage. Director Norman Rene. Setting Cliff Faulkner. Costumes Shigeru Yaji. Lighting Paulie Jenkins. Production manager Paul Hammond. Stage manager Andy Tighe. With Maureen Silliman, Tuck Milligan, Lisa Pelikan, Chris Mulkey, Jane Galloway, Brad O'Hare and Barbara Tarbuck. Plays Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., Sundays at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3. Closes Oct. 20. Tickets $16-$21. 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. (714) 957-4033.