Things of value once lost are found in "QWERTY" at Mixed Company.
Charlie may be very real but the typewriter he is working on — like all the typewriters he will select from the shelves as they come into play over the course of the evening — is, for all intents and purposes, a faded memory; an instrument tucked away in an attic or displayed in an antique shop or museum.
Once all the audience is seated and the lights go down, Charlie disappears but he has a kind of doppelganger — a nameless aged bowlegged figure (Whaley again) dressed in a red jacket with shoulder braids and a black hat who, with single-minded determination, shuffles about the stage setting the furniture for each of the plays; a foot, or, in an instance or two, both feet giving in to a bit of a jig or a shuffle or a skip to the incidental music that plays between scenes. Whaley's skillful, often whimsical routines are a show in themselves that are, at the same time, of a piece with the evening.
Clearly, Ackermann has a wistful feel for things of value — tangible and intangible — that have been lost. An old manual typewriter figures to one extent or another in each of the plays: "Olivetti," "Underwood," "Remington" and "Royal." But it's not simply the disappearance of a hand-powered instrument — there's no room for electric typewriters in the "QWERTY" universe — that's at issue. What's lost in the land of tweets and Facebook and Instagram is communication in its most personal hand-crafted expression.
That communication dissonance is enough to unsettle the young social media generation Lizzie (a hard-working Taylor Slonaker) in the ho-hum "Olivetti," whose boyfriend, Ruslan, an acting student at Juilliard, is "unplugging," Lizzie says; giving up tweets to communicate with her in typewritten notes. It's enough to make this social media kind of gal seriously consider breaking up with him. Instead, she's come to her grandmother, Ruth (a grounded and affecting Ariel Bock), to borrow her grandfather George's old Olivetti typewriter, which Ruth has fished out of the attic, along with a bunch of love letters Ruth and George exchanged when their relationship was young and fresh. Ruth gives her a crash course in how to use the machine, along with a few life lessons, not the least of which has to do with the notion of taking time, of engaging with anticipation in a culture that values instant results, response and gratification; a lesson that's been taken to heart by Ruth, who, we learn after Lizzie leaves, is about to take a drastic step to shake up her marriage and jolt her retired, bored husband, George (played with more earnest effort than accomplishment by Sam Bittman), out of his chair and away from his newspaper, which he clutches as of it were a protective shield.
The intensity of the connection between typewriter and human is seen most effectively in "Underwood," a three-character play shaped as a monologue, delivered with haunting, aching poignancy by Deann Halper as Elmira, a woman who has a deep, unshakeable bond with her husband Harold's typewriter on which he pounded away his best-selling murder-mysteries. From her bedroom on the third floor of their house, Elmira says, she could tell from the sounds of the keys — the rhythms, the lightness of touch, the weight — where Harold was in the plotting of his book.
"Underwood" is remarkable writing — compact, economical, chilling, measured. The gifted Halper handles all this with masterly control and full immersion into the body, spirit and soul of a woman whose one secure point in an uncertain world is an old typewriter — her then, her now, her will be — that sits on a table in her room.
The typewriter in the touching "Remington" is a mundane means to an end for a young woman named Dell (sensitively played by Caitlin Teeley), whose life is at sixes and sevens. She is sorely strapped for cash; her house, like her life, is in need of repair. She's trying to sell to a local newspaper an idea for a column about sex in the country so she's placed notice in the local shopper asking for volunteers to share their stories. More than sex, she wants to write about relationships in the country. She has drawn to her house an amiable and resourceful man named Mark (Gray Simons in an expertly crafted performance) who actually has come in response to another ad Dell has placed about a kayak she is selling. But, quite chance, he spots a truly remarkable shovel Dell has in her possession that's been handcrafted from a single piece of wood. That shovel becomes the vehicle for a coming together of these two in a manner that is graceful, calming, restorative.
The evening ends on a jarring, rambling note with "Royal." Julie Webster and Ryan Marchione play a television-writing duo, Marissa and the overly exhausted, late-arriving Avery, who are faced with the prospect of having to change, only minutes before a "pitch" meeting with powerful network official, their proposed half-hour sitcom to an hour-long drama. With them is their showrunner, Sam (a credible Mae Hedges), who tries to coach them through the transition. Gray Simons is welcome relief as a somewhat fey administrative assistant; Webster is acceptable as Marissa; Marchione's hyper exhaustion is a jittery excess of excess; the overall rhythm is halting and uncertain; the characters are more archetypal; and the writing meanders. Whatever's been lost here doesn't seem worth regaining, especially in light of what's been found early on.
Jeffrey Borak can be reached at 413-496-6212 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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