The set-up: In Close Up Space, the senior editor of a publishing house, an office tyrant, has kept his rebellious teen-age daughter in a series of academic institutions, thousands of miles away. Expelled from the latest, she returns to attack him.
Add an assistant whose past excesses with Mary Jane have left him mentally-challenged, salt with a high-strung, highly theatrical female writer, drop in an inexperienced editorial intern for comic effect, and one has the ingredients of a would-be zany comedy.
The execution: So much for theory. The good news is that David Wald plays Steve, the assistant whose job hangs by a thread, but a strong one as he has family connections to the owners of the firm. Wald brings his enthusiasm, impish charm and comedic acting skills to create an indelible portrait of an aging slacker, but one with a heart brimming with such good will that it is hard to see why his dog has rejected him. Wald's performance is memorable, and delightful.
Carolyn Johnson plays the writer, Vanessa Finn Adams, and she usually finds the right entertaining notes of arrogance and putting on airs, but sometimes lapses into substituting over-acting, quite a different thing. Brittny Bush plays Bailey, the intern, and fails to find a way to make her either interesting or amusing - Bush was excellent in a more powerful role last year in Large Animal Games, but the script here gives her no help.
As the editor's daughter, Harper, Joanna Hubbard provides a cheerless, dour personality, and we are meant to be entertained as she commits personal assaults and major felonies. There is a passing reference to her not taking her meds, but I doubt if they would help - the need is for a padded cell or prison.
Rutherford Cravens plays the editor Paul Barrow, the leading role, and one that has him onstage for virtually the entire play. Cravens creates the vivid persona of a pedant in an early introductory scene, but failed utterly to convince as later scenes stripped him of dignity and compelled him to grovel.
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He is an unlikely romantic character, and Vanessa's attempts to seduce him suggest that the playwright had in mind a very different type of actor. Cravens plays Barrow as stolid, phlegmatic, slow-speaking, moving about the stage like a Russian tank, the antithesis of what is needed in a purported zany comedy. He is seriously miscast.
Andrew Ruthven directed the play, a hapless job indeed, as playwright Molly Smith Metzler seems to have no respect for motivation, consistency, her characters, or the audience. The play segues into a search for relevance at the end, as we are meant to believe that the criminally-slanted teen-age Harper is A) a brilliant literary analyst; B) spiritually-connected; and C) has been terribly, terribly wronged by being sent to a $60,000-a-year boarding school. For this sin, and for the apparently heinous crime of leaving a manuscript in his office overnight, Barrow melts into a submissive dolt and seeks forgiveness and reconciliation with his deranged daughter, now in Russia. The play ends with a highly sentimental coda meant to be poignant.
The verdict: Zany characters inhabit a would-be poignant comedy, but the laughs are few and far between. David Wald is brilliant as a 40-year-old slacker, but even his warmth and comic genius can't overcome a miscast lead and a largely humorless script.
Close Up Space continues through June 16 at Main Street Theater - Rice Village, 2540 Times Blvd. For information or ticketing, call 713-524-6706 or contact www.mainstreettheater.com.