Ordinary Days

This chamber musical about two male-female duos in NYC is a refreshingly modern study of intimacy

Two for tea, and a very elaborate latte: Joe Hartman's Warren and Sarah Marie Curry's Deb
Two for tea, and a very elaborate latte: Joe Hartman's Warren and Sarah Marie Curry's Deb (Photo courtesy of Kimberley Mead)

The Off Center, 2211-A Hidalgo, 512/850-4849
Through April 6
Running time: 1 hr., 25 min.

Truth be told, I don't usually go in for musicals, preferring instead the brooding intensity of the Mamets and Marbers of the world. However, the chance to see a small-scale, character-driven production sans grandiose spectacle proved irresistible, and I joined the audience of Penfold Theatre Company's latest musical offering. Set in New York City and centering on two male-female duos whose lives intersect, Ordinary Days is a study of intimacy.

The intimate Off Center proves an ideal setting in which to see these characters struggle, up close and personal, with the risks inherent to all relationships. Since musicals are often staged in large venues, the demand for massive projection can sometimes hamper an actor's ability to pour the requisite energy into authentic characterization. That's clearly not the case here as Sarah Marie Curry – picture a young Judi Dench, albeit with funky spiked hair and tights – forces us to fall in love with her quirky grad student, Deb, while she scurries to meet thesis deadlines and even as she reduces the complex life of her subject, Virginia Woolf, to "depressing." Shades of plum dominate her wardrobe and feature prominently in the lighting, as does the unexpected pairing of red and green.

Since this is no holiday show, this design decision initially seems unusual, and yet red and green are diametrical opposites on the color wheel. Does this speak to the oppositional forces at work in the show's relationships? When Deb befriends Warren (Joe Hartman), who's gay, both clearly need a sympathetic ear, their identities nearly swallowed up by the anonymizing forces of the Big Apple. Yet just as one of those ubiquitous Buzzfeed quizzes might predict, their very different personalities are aptly reflected in their drink orders at Starbucks: for him, tea, just tea; for her, a latte of such painstaking specialization that repeating it here would produce sentence structure challenges. Superficially, they're incompatible, but in their quest to make a connection, they find common ground and patience.

Claire (Haley Smith Montgomery) and Jason (Matthew Redden) are at a crossroads: Make a major commitment to their romantic partnership, or move on. As with Deb and Warren, a rather simple man is paired with a complicated woman. When the couple visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jason longs for concreteness, singing: "Give me a portrait where a face is a face. / Don't give me theories about negative space." He knows what he wants, but Claire is uncertain. Although the script for Ordinary Days isn't Pulitzer-worthy, the libretto is refreshingly modern.

Decked out in a spiffy bowtie and suspenders, pianist Dustin Struhall is a real trouper. Behind his instrument at center stage, his hands never stop moving throughout the almost 90 minutes of the intermissionless production. The effect is unrelenting and so like the ordinary days to which this play pays homage: life in perpetual motion, an ever-spinning merry-go-round whose subjects leap in time to a song without end.

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Ordinary Days, Austin theatre, Penfold Theatre Company, Sarah Marie Curry, Joe Hartman, Haley Smith, Matthew Redden, Dustin Struhall

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