Orion feature image

Orion, a new play by Matthew McLachlan and directed by Joshua Warr, opened on Valentine’s Day, but the theatrical lovefest dishes out more than sweet nothings. Indeed, this playwright’s first full-length production serves up handfuls of hearty truths. 

Blake Merriman as Sam with Amanda Jones as Gwen in Matthew McLachlan's  Orion . Top: Merriman (left) with Scott Brieden as Scott.

Blake Merriman as Sam with Amanda Jones as Gwen in Matthew McLachlan's Orion. Top: Merriman (left) with Scott Brieden as Scott.

As humorous and poignant in the ensemble scenes (involving either of the two couples; the male or the female friend sets; or all four characters together) as it is painfully honest in its pensive asides by each character in turn (monologues delivered directly to the audience), this new work by a young playwright navigates the light and the dark sides of that crazy thing called love with impressive depth. Orion is likely to attract young people, but its emotional authenticity and dramatic clarity deserves wider reach, with kudos to the cast for elevating McLachlan's script even further. 

Orion’s message is timeless, though its commercial and cultural references to, for example, Love Actually, Coldplay and Pantene shampoo, as well as its current instrumental interludes (Enoch Porch composed the music) set it between the years 2009 and the present. It opens on Scott (Scott Brieden), a teaching assistant, trying to ease the pain and create some levity as Sam (Blake Merriman), his sensitive best friend, packs his girlfriend’s belongings into boxes. Her arrival to collect them is imminent. 

Sam, a physicist, cannot get over his breakup with Gwen, a writer and lifestyle blogger, admitting to “being held hostage by his emotions.” Scott offers, ‘You gotta just give it time; things’ll …work out,” and adds, “it’s the best advice I’ve got, so I hope it helped.” The first scene starts to simmer with Amanda Jones’s appearance as Gwen. Jones’s delivery and stage presence are a bouquet garni whose aromas give rise to confidence in the production.

While the dialogue is exposition-heavy, it also flows and feels natural. “You were my future,” Sam whines, reminding Gwen that he gave up going to Columbia University to be with her, while Gwen repeats that she “just needs time to figure it out. It isn’t logical; it’s not something I know, its something I feel,” she continues. “That doesn’t make sense,” says Sam. “It’s not supposed to,” Gwen insists. ‘“If you say Orion,” Sam tells her, “I’ll know that you mean it.” “Orion,” Gwen says. But, for all her honesty, as she and Sam exhaustingly, figuratively, battle to the ground, at the bottom there lies duplicity. 

Jones (rear) with Simone Serra as Abby. Photos by Justin Chauncey.

Jones (rear) with Simone Serra as Abby. Photos by Justin Chauncey.

The story jumps ahead several years to shed light on the other couple’s relationship—Scott and Abby (Simone Serra, whose performance packs a punch as a fresh, full-on female with more than a dash of feistiness), and to announce that Gwen has a new boyfriend but has only told Abby and has sworn her to secrecy. In a bar an inebriated Abby tells Scott (“Relationship Rules”). Equally fueled, Scott will have to tell Sam (“Friend Rules”). Sam arrives to celebrate his imminent departure for Columbia; he has moved on, or he had, until he gets the news. Gwen turns up unannounced; Sam confronts her. Complex and not pretty, the scene scrambles the confidences and other demands of both love and friendship. 

The proposal and wedding which follow (Scott to Abby) tell as much about the bride and groom-to-be as about their friends. Time has healed Sam’s wounds; Gwen, in an unhappy relationship, is full of regret for having left Sam. Revealing the play’s narrative here still leaves plenty of room for the thick polemical pudding the audience has to swallow.

In the final scene, the story goes back in time, to the four in their university days, and it’s when the play takes a dive. The exposition already offered the audience is unnecessarily repeated here. The characters then repeat lines from each of their monologues, resulting in a preacher-like ending. In his earlier monologue, Sam cuts himself off and promises he’ll tell us “next time.” Disappointingly, Sam does not come back to tell us, and his story remains unresolved. Moreover, some of Christopher Annas-Lee’s lighting effects produce distracting and inappropriate shadows, like the hand-puppets effect on the back wall during Sam and Gwen’s most intimate moments in the park. 

Orion attempts to spread the word of love, sweet love, while, for better or for worse, it also takes a stab at the hearts of its twenty-something characters in various stages of their relationships. With the aptitude of a surgeon, the hearts and minds of friends and lovers are artfully cut open and meticulously picked apart in this four-hander. Putting them all back together is something else entirely.

Ruddy Productions’ Orion plays through March 4 at the Studio Theatre (Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St. between Ninth and Tenth avenues). Wed.-Fri. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. Tickets are available by calling (212) 239-6200 or online at Telecharge.com. Tickets may also be purchased in person at the Theatre Row box office. Discount tickets are available for students (with code TRRUDDYSTU) and seniors (with code TRRUDDYSEN).

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