Misery, Love, and Company

If InProximity Theatre Company’s second production doesn’t match the success of their inaugural, Orange Flower Water, it’s nothing to do with a sophomore jinx. The five-member cast, along with the sterling designers, do pretty well by Nicky Silver’s downbeat story of unrequited love, but the play seems to have been chosen more for the wide range of emotions it allows the actors to display rather than for its coherence. Silver, who can be one of the funniest writers around (The Food Chain, Raised in Captivity), sets up some amusing situations in the first half of The Maiden’s Prayer, but even then things proceed a bit choppily. At the wedding of Cynthia (Laurie Schaefer) and Taylor (Josh Clayton), Cynthia’s brassy sister Libby (Jolie Curtsinger) gets drunk and disorderly. Libby dated Taylor for three weeks and was in love with him, but Cynthia, in her eyes, stole him away. Meanwhile, Taylor’s boyhood friend Paul (Jonathan Todd Ross) becomes enmeshed in the family squabble. The gay Paul is a serial dater, and humor arises as his friends struggle to remember who the current flame is. But Paul’s character deepens, and he becomes the anchor for the story, as Cynthia miscarries and setbacks occur to change everyone’s lives.

Director Terry Berliner finds the laughs in the first half, provided mostly by Ari Rossen, initially as several of Paul’s dates, but primarily as Andrew, a trick who won’t leave and who speaks periodically in monologues to the audience. (Other characters also have monologues, which advance the story by fits and starts.) When Paul ends up moving to avoid Andrew, there’s a flash of the unrestrained loopy comedy that is Silver’s trademark, but it’s only momentary: what prevails is an inconsistency of tone.

The inventive Berliner has mounted the play in traverse, and James J. Fenton provides an outdoor patio and weatherbeaten, paint-stripped arbors, trellises, and backyard gates, supplemented with extraordinary detail by family photographs and rusted wire bric-a-brac. Fenton encompasses both halves of the audience into the setting: behind one tier of seats is the shingled wall of the house; behind the other is a backyard fence. At times the set serves as Paul’s apartment or a restaurant, and it’s lighted carefully by Cory Pattak not only to provide the appropriate atmosphere but to distinguish the swiftly changing scenes on the small stage.

Strangely, Berliner has simply ignored some aspects of the text that should have been altered. References to Taylor’s blond hair (Clayton is decidedly a redhead) and a childhood tetherball court “under this tree” where there’s a fence make no sense. And if Cynthia tells Taylor to return a tricycle he’s assembling, it ought not to look like something from a salvage sale.

With so many colors to play, the actors prove generally adept but have occasional weak points. Clayton starts out as a bland love object (in addition to Taylor’s wife and sister-in law, Paul has had a bit of a crush on him since their childhood), but his character has little to do except be overprotective, and since “he never loses his temper,” he registers as an annoying noodge. Late in the play the actor comes on strong with frustrated affection and enervation, stumbling just a bit in a crucial drunk scene, where he alternates moments of startling immediacy, as he seems almost asleep on his feet, with boilerplate drunkenness.

Early on, Schaefer’s Cynthia is a nice, smiling counterpoint to the jealous sibling Libby insists she is, but there’s no way to sympathize with her behavior in the second half of the play (without, perhaps, having suffered post-partum depression oneself). The brassy Curtsinger comes on too strong at first, and her Libby doesn’t garner much sympathy—and loses some laughs—but eventually she settles down and in her quieter scenes she’s more effective. Yet Libby gains sympathy partly by default, because Cynthia’s behavior becomes more reprehensible, particularly in the slogging second half, where Silver ratchets up the angst level to soap opera.

Ross is a steadfast Paul—loyal friend, sex object, wry sidekick, and reluctant mediator, and he carries off all those roles successfully, a solid touchstone for the chaos whirling around him. Ultimately, though, the actors are let down by the script with its arbitrary plot twists and its obvious message—unrequited love is painful and messy, but one can recover. There’s a great deal of talent at InProximity, but one hopes the next project matches it to a worthier script.

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