Date night

Tampa Rep’s second season takes flight with Phoenix, a rom-com-dram for the stage.

click to enlarge THEIR COUPLE RUNNETH OVER: Tampa Rep’s romantic dramedy stars Jon Gennari as Bruce and Georgia Mallory Guy as Sue. - Courtesy of Tampa Repertory Theatre
Courtesy of Tampa Repertory Theatre
THEIR COUPLE RUNNETH OVER: Tampa Rep’s romantic dramedy stars Jon Gennari as Bruce and Georgia Mallory Guy as Sue.

Scott Organ’s Phoenix is a crisp, charming relationship play that doesn’t have much to say, but says it briskly and with gentle humor. Lovingly directed by Connie LaMarca-Frankel, the show is further evidence that the new Tampa Repertory Theatre is for real, and can be depended upon to bring us well-crafted productions that shine with professionalism.

Is all that care misplaced, in this case, on what’s no more than a pleasant trifle? Possibly, depending on what you ask from a stage play. If you expect the live theater to provide something that TV and film don’t — more depth, say, or more interesting language — then you shouldn’t waste your time: Bruce and Sue, the lovers in Phoenix, aren’t very distinctive at all. But if you just want something harmless and up-to-date to talk about over a couple of brews at the restaurant later, then Phoenix will do the job. It’s efficient and attractive and notably well-put-together. The fact that you chose it over the latest comic book-turned-movie might even impress your date.

Does anyone remember Peter Yates’ 1969 film John and Mary with Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow? It’s about two twentysomethings who meet at a single bar, go to bed, and then spend the next day together, deciding if they like each other. Phoenix works on the same principle: its two characters hook up unexpectedly, and then spend six scenes determining whether they need to know each other’s last names. Author Organ raises the ante though: the two lovers’ hookup has led (four weeks later) to Sue discovering that she’s pregnant, so it’s not just a possible love match that hangs in the balance. To make things more interesting, Bruce had been sure that he couldn’t impregnate anyone — so a doctor had told him — and Sue is a travelling nurse who’ll have to repair to an abortion clinic far away in Phoenix, Ariz. (we never find out where the first scene takes place). That’s most of the plot, though it’s important to add that Sue early on makes it clear she doesn’t want a relationship with Bruce, certainly doesn’t want his baby, and doesn’t even want him to accompany her to the clinic. He’s not that easily put off, though (if he were, there’d be no play). He pursues her in his earnest way, insists on being in Phoenix when the child is aborted, and even allows some elaborate fantasies to emerge from his ever-churning mind. In this wild, untethered world, it seems, the course of true love never did run smooth.

Jon Gennari plays Bruce as a well-meaning, somewhat lonely modern man, genuinely attracted to Sue, but convinced that there are no miracles on this blue planet and therefore no reason to hope for a brilliant future. A tragedy earlier in his life has led him to a kind of polite despair, but he’s still game enough to fight against stiff odds for Sue’s attentions. As Sue, Georgia Mallory Guy is independent and assertive, more pessimistic than is entirely healthy, but still capable of surprising Bruce, and herself, with the odd episode of positive thinking. Guy is particularly good at showing us Sue’s ambivalence: because she herself doesn’t fully know what she wants from time to time, we also have to wonder, and to watch closely for the answer. Director LaMarca-Frankel has the two actors change clothes on stage between scenes, and also has them move furniture around Amanda Bearss’ striking, minimalist set, featuring a sharply defined orange square on which are arranged a table, bench, and two chairs. LaMarca-Frankel also designed the many costumes, all of which are persuasively right-now. I should say here that Phoenix is the best-looking production I’ve ever seen at the HCC Ybor Theatre: even before the play began, I found myself impressed and intrigued. I only wish that more area directors were conscious of how an aesthetically pleasing abstract set can serve them.

Phoenix premiered in 2010 at the redoubtable Humana Festival of New American Plays (at the Actors Theatre of Louisville), so it must have touched someone on its way to Tampa and TRT. And even if I have doubts about the play, this is a top-notch production: both actors are terrific, the design is superb, the directing couldn’t be better. So congratulations, Tampa Rep: your work keeps improving. And I have more reason than ever to believe that, one of these days, you’re going to present something totally, unequivocally splendid.

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