WILLIAMSTOWN — At the age of 29, Elizabeth Eberwine, the central figure in Boo Killebrew's affectionate, if, at times, uneven, comedy-drama, "Romance Novels for Dummies," is in crisis.
Accompanied by her six-going-on-seven-year-old daughter Lily and their dog, Spaghetti, Liz (played by Mary Wiseman in the play's world premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival's Main Stage), whose husband was killed in an automobile accident six months earlier, has come to Brooklyn from her small hometown in Mississippi to move into a brownstone — bought and paid for by her in-laws. She and Lily and Spaghetti (whose way of dealing with loss and relocation is to leave messy souvenirs all over Brooklyn) are sharing their new digs with Liz' older sister, Bernie (Ashley Austin Morris), who lives something of a carefree bohemian life.
Indeed, as "Romance Novels for Dummies" begins, Bernie is helping Liz fill out an OkCupid profile; encouraging her to shake off her shroud of mourning, the tragedy Liz says she wears like a dress, and begin living. "Let the good times roll. Best way to get over a man is to get under a new one," Bernie quips to Liz in what is the best line in the play.
For Liz, it's not simply a matter of getting over the sudden death of her high school sweetheart husband. She has a daughter whose concept of death is fanciful; a radiant place where she can go and be with her dad. Liz is struggling to figure out how best to talk with Lily about what death is.
"I am 29 with a six-year-old daughter and I just moved to a new city where I know no one. Oh, and I am a widow. I am a widow. How did I get here?" she asks Bernie out of utter desperation. That question is the spine of the arc of Liz' journey through the play; a journey that leads to a choice at the end which is the best choice she feels she can make for the sake of her family — neurotic dog included — and which asks us to consider our notions of what constitutes a happy ending.
Happy endings are part of why Liz has become an avid reader of romance novels and why she entertains the thought of writing them. "The rules are pretty much laid out for you," she remarks at one point. Chief among those rules is a conventional happy ending in which the heroine and hero and live happily ever after. It's her way of finding in fiction what she is being denied in real life — order, certainty, happiness.
At one point, as Liz outlines the story she says she's working on for her new book play, it is clear that the story she is telling is her own only with a different outcome. What she can't change in life, she can change on the printed page, only there are no pages.
"All I ever wanted was the life we had. I don't want another one," she tells her father-in-law (nicely played by Andrew Weems), who assumes she is trying to "move forward, live a life."
Indeed, there will be some efforts to move forward, to live a life. There are prospective hook-ups (all of them played by Justin Long) for Liz — a personal trainer, a mixologist with a crazy scheme for a different kind of bar — none of them more promising and appealing than Myron, an earnest, sincere, what's-not-to-love kind of guy who plays trumpet in the pit orchestra of the Broadway hit, "Wicked." Fresh out of a three-year relationship with an actress named Stephanie, Myron is a veteran of what he calls "the New York f-----g around thing." He finds in Liz a kindred spirit; a promise.
Among Killebrew's skills is her ability to start us down what seem to be groaningly familiar paths, but then leads us somewhere else; somewhere unexpected. And while those shifts are, for the most part, adept, there are moments when the transitions are awkward and arbitrary, particularly as the mood shifts from a kind of urban, sophisticated rom-com opening, tempered by a tinge of Beth Henley in the air, to the more considered atmosphere that settles in as the Killebrew zeroes in on Liz' relationship with Myron (played by Long with appeal, charm and understanding) and her less-than-harmonious relationship with Bernie (a somewhat one-dimensional Ashley Austin Moss).
The production is rounded out with believable performances not only by Weems but also Connie Ray as Liz' mother-in-law and Emily Lyons as Lily, and enhanced enormously by original incidental music by Palmer Hefferan that catches the energy and pulse of millennial life in New York and, at the same time, a haunting loneliness and isolation beneath.
What: "Romance Novels for Dummies" by Boo Killebrew. Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
With: Mary Wiseman, Ashley Austin Morris, Emily Lyons, Justin Long, Connie Ray, Andrew Weems
Who: Williamstown Theatre Festival
Where: Main Stage, '62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main St. (Route 2), Williamstown
When: Now through July 31. Evenings — Thursday at 7:30; Friday and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Thursday and Sunday at 2; Saturday at 3:30
Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes (no intermission)
How: 413-597-3400; wtfestival.org; in person at '62 Center box office