Jordan Jaffe’s comedy-drama Whirlwind hinges on a hot topic: environmental activism. It’s also descriptive of the relationships at its center. Bethany Goodbridge (Annapurna Sriram) handles issues of environment, health and safety at Arrow Energy, a San Francisco firm that builds wind farms. Her boss, Cooper (Johnny Wu), is an arrogant corporate type who likes to brag that he has his own jet. He also has more than a businesslike eye on her. Christian Conn plays the man who brings the whirlwind into their lives and ruffles their feathers—an apt description, since he is irate that one of the company’s isolated wind farms is killing birds at a terrible rate.
Conn’s Michael Zrinski is a firebrand who has been logging the deaths of the birds at the remote San Gregory site and has compiled a binder about it that he threatens to bring to the San Francisco Chronicle unless they stop. Cooper doesn’t want to deal with Michael—it turns out they have a history—and he foists the problem onto Beth. Before long she and Michael are talking about their passions—Beth has plunged into the wind-power industry partly as penance for her family’s history in the oil business.
For his part, Michael is simply a passionate ornithologist with terrible people skills. Dressed in plaid shirt, olive slacks and tortoiseshell glasses by costume designer Loren Shaw, Conn manages to neutralize his leading-man looks and be utterly convincing as a scruffy, off-the-grid nature lover (although a stumble on pronouncing ornithologist briefly broke the spell). He speaks with confidence about the sexual habits of ducks and dunnocks, but he’s endearingly awkward about the mating game for humans.
Even though Gabriel Firestone’s set evokes different times and places on a shoestring budget, from a sterile corporate office to a night in the woods, the use of only three characters crowds out the hefty environmental stakes—the three may talk about saving the planet, but it feels like they are living in a vacuum.
It’s the intimate scenes that work most memorably, the character interactions, often with a gentle satiric humor:
Beth: Hey, before you go, I’ve been brainstorming some ideas for places where I think I could be a further asset—
Cooper: Mmm. Sorry, I have to, “brainstorming” is actually a pejorative term for people with epilepsy and seizures, so we’re going to be cutting back on its usage.
Beth: Oh, um—
Cooper: So from now on we only have “thought showers” here at Arrow.
Beth: Thought showers?
Dan Amboyer, making his directing debut, has worked with the three principals as an actor, and it’s clear he brings sensitivity and confidence to his new role. Sriram’s Beth is a woman who listens to a podcast to help her navigate the corporate world and handle problem clients like Michael as well as her smug boss with aplomb—her podcast advises that “a smile is a sign of appeasement.” Cooper’s come-ons to her are awkward and unwelcome—and Wu makes him a stiff oaf, the equivalent of the Ralph Bellamy part in several comedies of the 1930s and ’40s, but with an overbearing edge. “Maybe ultra-successful men aren’t your type,” he tells Beth after being spurned.
If the romance in Jaffe’s play calls to mind Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, it is no drawback—the scientist with tunnel vision who opens up to a challenging woman is a model that worked there, and the variation here works too, even with the higher stakes of environmental ruin hovering over them.
Amboyer takes full advantage of his two stars’ chemistry and charm. They manage to paper over the play’s illogic on occasion—in this day and age it’s improbable that any woman would go into the wilderness at night with a man she’d just met under adversarial circumstances—and they deliver even the most innocuous dialogue with a delicate touch.
Michael: How did you end up out here?
Beth: I moved.
Michael: You’re a gifted elaborator.
Beth: Sorry. I just like to look forward, not backward.
Beth has no real position of strength, and her inability to pacify Michael leads him to a dangerous maneuver as the comedy leaves the classic model behind and enters the 21st century, with dynamite and body parts making an appearance. But their star-crossed relationship is a memorable one, and Jaffe’s climax proves a bittersweet conclusion to a production of modest means yet ample satisfactions.
Jordan Jaffe’s Whirlwind plays through Feb. 10 at the Wild Project (195 E. 3rd St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, Monday, and at 8 p.m. Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 and information is available by calling OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visiting thewildproject.com.