It takes a minute to recall some sense of what the word means: “an ornamental tuft” or “a flamboyance of style.” That someone could write an entire play that begins with a conflict over this seven-letter word inscribed on a vanity license plate boggles the mind.
Don Gordon’s “Panache,” now showing at Williamston Theatre, starts out as a slightly silly tale before evolving into a complex, seriocomic romp with poignant twists and tightly parsed phrasing.
The plays tells the story of Kathleen, an upper-class princess from Scarsdale, N.Y., who wants the vanity plate for her husband’s car in hopes it will inspire some new spark in his life; and Harry, a down-on-his-luck artist scraping by as a short-order cook and inveterate gambler, who has had the plate for several years running.
Kathleen, played by Sarab Kamoo, is polished with salon veneer. She has money to burn and the will to go after whatever she wants. Kamoo develops her character carefully, first touching on the stereotypical “lady-at-lunch,” before revealing the complicated, wounded woman within. As the enamel cracks, a deep loss is revealed.
At first Harry, played by Alex Leydenfrost, seems indifferent to Kathleen’s clever, persistent attempts to buy his vanity plate. As he explains the history of the plate, however, he becomes much more than what he seems at first glance. Over the course of the play, Harry’s humor, delivered with perfect comic timing by Leydenfrost, is seen as a mask hiding his own deep loss.
As the seemingly opposite characters expose their deeper emotions and vulnerabilities, the audience discovers they have each suffered significant losses. This contrast of opposites makes for an onstage intimacy that comes across as very real.
Three featured actors occasionally accompany these two, each of whom play their parts exquisitely. Maggie Meyer appears as Harry’s lost love, Laura Baldwin, in a scene from his early life, reappearing later as a ghost of the same character. Keith Kalinowski plays oddball sidekick Jumbo Dombroski, and Matt Hollenbach appears as two different aspects of another character from Harry’s past.
But the stage belongs to Kathleen and Harry. As they let go of defenses and banalities — of the ornamental fluff of “Panache” — they become the deeper people beneath the surfaces.
April 19 8 p.m. Thursday & Friday 3 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday 2
p.m. Sunday Williamston Theatre, 122 S. Putnam St., Williamston $18-$24
(517) 655-7469 www.williamstontheatre.org