RiddleLikeLove (With a Side of Ketchup) is the ungainly title of a slender, affecting tale about the childhood friendship between an aspiring actress and a hearing-disabled girl named Elizabeth who dies young. It's a one-woman autobiographical show that lasts a fleeting 50 minutes, and Julie Fitzpatrick, who wrote the play with director Douglas Anderson, captures Elizabeth with uncanny clarity. The ketchup in question is the girls' favorite snack, and many of their exchanges take place at a neighborhood Friendly's, with a plate of it between them. The play contains within it the story of its own creation. In the first scene, Julie, on her way home from an ego-deflating audition, opens a letter containing an invitation from Elizabeth's aunt to do a show at her small-town Vermont theater (where, in fact, this play premiered). Later that night, as a reluctant Julie stares at a photo of Elizabeth, her friend first comes to life with her singular, ear-grating address, "Do it, Jooollleee!" After Elizabeth suggests that the play be about her, Julie slowly finds a foothold in the story, with Elizabeth as her muse and cheerleader.
Julie is as tentative and self-deprecating as the lip-reading Elizabeth is plucky and confident. Each character's personality is vividly embodied in idiosyncratic habits and gestures. For instance, Julie finds opening her mail so unnerving that she carries piles of it around, unopened in her bag. Or Elizabeth's kiss: "She'd grab my cheeks, purse her lips out, clamp her eyes shut, and wait for my lips to meet hers." Fitzpatrick segues seamlessly between the two characters through deft shifts in voice and carriage.
Interwoven in the play are six classic ballads, sung by Fitzpatrick in a sweet, clear voice with Anderson beautifully accompanying her on the piano. The songs might seem saccharine in another context, but they assume resonance from the stories Julie tells, which frame them. Thus when Julie sings Bette Midler's "The Wind Beneath My Wings," the audience can't help but visualize Elizabeth with her ear pressed against a tape cassette playing the song and later realizing a dream when she dances to the song at the prom with a popular boy from her class.
The snug stage is divided into small quadrants: a diner banquette with ketchup bottle in one, an armchair in Julie's rundown sublet across from that, the piano and microphone at back, and an open space at front. Under Anderson's expert direction, Fitzpatrick moves easily among the four sets and the different psychic spaces they occupy, with help from Evan Purcell's subtle lighting. (A deaf interpreter sits at front off to one side, signing for deaf audience members.)
As Julie tells Elizabeth's story, regrets surface. But in memory, it is as if Elizabeth forgives her friend's inattention: "You should wear a watch and you should look at it when it's on your wrist … because lateness is rude, Jjjooolleee—OK—don't get defensive. I love you, Jooollleee—here, have some ketchup."
Such is this play's generous spirit—and its pull.