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Wednesday, June 6,2012

Appealing 'Apartment'

Crackling chemistry energizes quirky comedy

by Paul Wozniak

If the romantic comedy genre were basic macaroni and cheese, Jeff Daniels’ “Apartment 3A” might be the labor-intensive recipe with lots of obscure ingredients. Fortunately, director Joseph Dickson, under the guise of the newly formed Over the Ledge Theatre Co., is a skilled cook who not only cast some extremely talented actors, but also knows how to whip this offbeat script into a crowd-pleasing dish. 

Basic ingredients for “Apartment 3A” include pretty female protagonist Annie (Abbie Murphy); the nice guy whoīs just right for her, Elliot (Blake Bowen), and the eccentric, sage-like next-door neighbor, Donald (Mike Stewart). Blend in some graphic sex talk, a dash of conflict all set in the generic Midwest, and you have a fairly predictable Daniels rom-com.

Times are tough at the local public television station where Annie and Elliot both work, especially during pledge week. Fueled by her recent separation from her husband and general disillusionment with public broadcasting, Annie finally snaps during “Sesame Street” and tells the young viewers that “Big Bird will die” unless their parents call and pledge enough money to keep the station going. Elliot, her supervisor, is mortified but ultimately uses the moment to follow through on his unrequited crush and ask Annie out to lunch. Lunch eventually turns to breakfast, Annie spills the details to Donald, her new confidant, and the show keeps cooking.

Events take a spiritual detour during the lunch when Elliot admits that heīs a Catholic. Annie holds opposing views, combined with strong political rhetoric that quickly morphs into a theological rant long enough to fill up a street with soapboxes. Questions like “Why does God let bad things happen to good people?” and “Does God even exist?” comprise the bulk of the dialogue, but the pages of back and forth debate barely factor into the story or the development of either character. 

Then itīs back to the aphrodisiac effects of the “mating habits of the Siberian Polar Bear” PBS special, rounded out by a final metaphysical twist that tries to be “Twilight Zone” but feels more like M. Night Shyamalan. Itīs enough gear-shifting to earn the adjectives “unconventional” and “uneven.” 

But Murphy and Bowen in particular give fully developed performances that bounce to the same comic beat. Annie can be callous and cold, but Murphy provides the necessary warmth for the audience to empathize. Elliotīs puppy-dog devotion to Annie is heartbreakingly sweet, courtesy of Bowen, whose massive frame conjures up the image of a giant teddy bear. Their scenes opposite each other are so natural and captivating that for those moments, you forget youīre watching a play. Their romantic and comic chemistry are the high-grade fromage that holds the dish together. 

Murphy shares a similar though slightly less magical rapport with Stewart, whose character finds meaning through his devotion to his strangely absent wife. Dressed in a bow tie and conservative button-down, Stewart perfectly epitomizes the slightly annoying yet compassionate elder who holds Annie to higher standards of honesty.  

Finally, Chris Goeckel and Steve Ledyard competently fill the featured roles of Dal and Tony. Ledyard stands out as the station technician who must slowly repress his flustered mutterings regarding Annieīs sacrilegious act of inspiration. 

Ultimately, Dicksonīs perceptive direction keeps the show moving steadily, despite the lengthy existential diversions. Annieīs full-stage apartment cleverly becomes multiple locations through tight lighting cues, allowing for seamless scene transitions. Itīs a welcome level of preparation and polish that makes up for the script’s shortcomings, turning this quirky recipe into charming cuisine.

‘Apartment 3A’

Over the Ledge Theatre Co.

Ledges Playhouse

137 Fitzgerald Park Dr., Grand Ledge

8 p.m. Thursday, June 7, Friday, June 8 and Saturday, June 9; 2 p.m. Sunday, June 10

$10 adults; $8 seniors; $6 students

(517) 318-0579

overtheledge.org

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