Appleseed Productions, never a company to rest on its laurels, has made sure everything about its current show, at the Atonement Lutheran Church, 116 W. Glen Ave., is all new. The play itself, an off-Broadway hit nine years ago, is making its area premiere. Most of the cast, except the comic relief in the second act, is made up of unfamiliar faces. And there’s the directorial debut of Alan D. Stillman, long a utility infielder (a card player in The Odd Couple) and outfielder (a discarded lover in Plaza Suite) for different companies. As one of the most frequently cast guys in community theater, he’s been making close observations on technique and it shows that he has studied well.
Tristine Skyler was a 32-year-old Princeton graduate when The Moonlight Room opened to mostly flattering reviews in 2003. It came after Sept. 11, 2001, frequently referenced, but before cell phones were universal. We don’t know enough about her to suggest that the play is in any way autobiographical, but it focuses on a sensitive, intelligent high school student, Sal (Erin Griffin). All other characters, her contemporaries or adults, appear to be seen from her point of view.
Since 2003 the play has been performed a few times in big markets, but it is Stillman’s powerful memory of the original production that brings it to us. What he saw, as might have been expected, are plenty of roles calling for subtle technique, including gutsy use of silence, volumes spoken without words.
The poetic-sounding title, explained in a speech, is a name for one of the most prosaic places to be found in any city: the waiting area for the emergency room. Stillman himself constructed the set: solid walls in oppressive green, glossy posters advertising something you don’t want, and just offstage a whirring soda pop machine offering comfort with dyed chemicals. As it looks so well-carpentered, Appleseed might want to keep the set in storage in case they ever want to stage Sartre’s No Exit, the one where hell turns out to be just being with other people.
It’s 1:30 a.m. at the beginning of the action, or, rather, when we first see Sal and she does not speak. She and a guy-pal in a hoodie named Josh Farley (Dusten Blake) have brought in a second boy named Lightfield, whom we never see. The absent boy has overdosed on a street drug known as Special K. Josh, whose spacey demeanor contrasts with Sal’s assuredness (we know immediately that they are not lovers), may or may not have had something to do with the disaster befalling Lightfield. In unappealing evasiveness Josh denies being a drug dealer but admits that he does deliver controlled substances.
Skyler’s dialogue mixes a hip sense of awareness with teen sarcasm, not unlike what might have been heard from a 17-year-old Manhattanite who later found herself at Princeton. The two characters play semantic games about whether pot is a drug or a pastime—but if that’s so, doesn’t “pastime” also include golf? Josh sneers that Sal and her mother live a completely suburban lifestyle in the middle of New York City but have a car so that they can shop at the big-box stores in New Jersey. Merely to shop at a discounter and buying in bulk comes across as a failure of taste. There’s also a continuing visual gag about what looks like a two-gallon jug of peanut butter.
Two parents arrive but speak on contrasting tones. Sal’s mother, known as Mrs. Kelly (Eva Carafa), speaks of suffering from her divorce and is clearly worried about the sense of losing communication with her daughter. Her penchant for saying the wrong thing, and misreading Sal’s cues, reduces our likelihood of sympathizing with her. Although she is clearly an educated woman, a former teacher of English as a Second Language, director Stillman’s unnamed costumer has dressed the mother in downmarket duds, treading along in worn Converse sneakers.
Lightfield’s father, Mr. Wells (James Sanders), turns out to be a black man, something not noted about the patient until now, and he’s an articulate member of the professional class. He blames himself for his son’s plight but does not mix much into the Moonlight Room’s dynamic.
Instead, we have an actual doctor, Adam (Dan Rowlands), a white man who is Lightfield’s stepbrother (one hopes this was not intended to be a gag). Totally deficient in bedside manner, Adam is self-important and given to pontificating. The medical profession has been the subject of satire since Moliere’s time, and Rowlands seizes the full comic potential of tediousness. Paradoxically, we crave to see more of him on stage, as we would not want in life. Then again, Adam is seen only in the weakly structured second act, where each speech feels separate from one another, and playwright Skyler is not building tension or leading to a climax.
In bringing The Moonlight Room to town as a labor of love, director Stillman has bestowed many gifts on his cast. Dusten Blake’s Josh thrives with expressive physicality, such as balletic martial arts leaps and evocative tai chi miming of animal forms. Erin Griffin as Sal, a possible stand-in for the playwright, bears the heaviest burden with the most lines and the most emotional depth. The supportive director has assured Griffin’s motivation, polish and effect. And while playing adults in a teen-centered drama is a little like being the sole American in an English drama, both Eva Carafa and James Sanders are as compelling as the playwright has conceived them.
All the cast, except for Dan Rowlands, have been previously seen in small parts or have worked backstage. It’s encouraging to see how much talent we have in reserve, waiting for their close-ups.
This production runs through March 24. See Times Table for information.