Behind the familiar lurks the extraordinary. We get inklings of this in daily life, but the rush of it generally drowns them out.
Only later--looking at old snapshots, say--do we see how strange it all is.
Playwright Craig Lucas touched on it in "Blue Window," where a Sunday-evening dinner party gave up the secrets of everyone involved without a moment of conventional dramatic conflict, and without being arty, either.
It was a magical play, one of those gifts that the gods sometimes bring a writer. Lucas' new play at South Coast Repertory, "Three Postcards"--a musical play, with songs by Craig Carnelia--is more hard won. But it is won. You listen; you're charmed; you care.
Once more Lucas takes us behind the looking glass of an ordinary social occasion to show what else is going on. This time, three women friends (Jane Galloway, Maureen Silliman and Karen Trott) are having dinner in a Manhattan restaurant.
It's a very-'80s place, with chairs inspired by Robert Wilson and a drop-dead menu. (Fried grapes ?) A pianist is also in attendance--Mr. Carnelia. Don't expect him to play requests.
The three friends grew up together, not that Jane (Galloway) ever has. At 35, she is still doing telephone sales and falling for the wrong guys. Jane had her first appointment with a shrink today and her friends can't wait to hear about it.
One of them (Silliman) is also named Jane, something that never happens in plays, but often happens in life. This Jane is known as "Little" Jane. Her life includes a mad husband. The third friend is K.C. (Trott), who just lost her mother.
However, they haven't gathered to cry on each other's shoulders, but to have fun, and they do. These women really like each other, and nothing that happens over the course of the play disturbs that. Nobody is stealing anybody's husband, either.
Not much does happen over the course of the play except for some fun conversation. Jane is especially funny. She always says the first thing that comes into her head. This is why she is still in phone sales.
But when the waiter (Brad O'Hare) mutters: "I hate you," the play slips into the twilight zone. There, plenty of things happen--even a space ship sequence, which may be pushing unreality a little too far.
But most of the digressions are apt. We see the girls as teen-agers conspiring against them (their parents). We learn how Jane went to Martinique for 10 days (on her friends' money) and stayed for five years. We meet Little Jane's husband (played by the waiter). K.C. sings about her mother, caught in one of those old snapshots--Carnelia's most affecting song.
There's nothing pretentious about this. There's even an amusing sight gag about "drifting away" from the table. But we do get a sense of mystery, lightly touched. What if what happened then and what is happening now were on the same loop? What if--oh, good, here's the veal.
While going behind the scenes, Lucas also provides a meticulous and funny report on restaurant behavior. For instance, the initial unspoken tug of war between waiter and customer, augmented here by the fact that the customers are women. Silliman's Little Jane will have none of it. She orders like a champion.
The actors, under Norman Rene's direction, are also meticulous observers. There's a moment, for example, when Galloway is struck by a passing thought in the middle of Silliman's sentence, but doesn't want to interrupt. Again, it's a thing you've seen a million times, but not once in a play. These tiny reality blips make "Three Postcards" even easier to assimilate.
For some reason this reviewer didn't feel as close to the characters as to the ones in "Blue Window." It may be that Carnelia's songs--each astute, a couple memorable--force the characters into the position of performers. We want to watch them unobserved; suddenly, they are speaking directly to us.
But I may have picked up this notion from Little Jane's meditation on quarks, those tiny particles of matter that behave differently when observed than not. In any case, the play is having its first showing at South Coast and has time for readjustments.
The production is on-the-nose.
Loy Arcenas' restaurant setting is the very last word in nouveau decor , down to its Noxzema-blue floor and its revolving piano turret. Walker Hicklin's costumes are equally ultra, as in the post-modern zigzags on O'Hare's white waiter's jacket, echoing the huge painting on the back wall. How hip can you get? Debra J. Kletter's lighting is clear and objective, going to ultra-violet for the sci-fi sequence.
The "Three Postcards" are from Jane in Martinique, by the way. Her stay down there was strange but no stranger than what goes on here. For Lucas, it's all quirks and quarks.
A musical play by Craig Lucas (script) and Craig Carnelia (songs) at South Coast Repertory. Director Norman Rene. Settings Loy Arcenas. Costumes Walker Hicklin. Lighting Debra J. Kletter. Set design Bruce D. Cameron. Choreography Linda Kostlik-Boussom. Dramaturge John Glore. Production manager Paul Hammond. Stage manager Julie Haber. With Brad O'Hare, Craig Carnelia, Jane Galloway, Maureen Silliman and Karen Trott. Plays Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with Saturday-Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. Closes Feb. 8. Tickets $16-$24. 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. (714) 957-4033.