Fort Worth — There’s a reason that Hope & Gravity, directed by Harry Parker at Circle Theatre, is instantly likeable. It’s part of playwright Michael Hollinger’s plan. He makes it glisten so that you’ll listen, but the spoonful of sugar hides a bitter pill.
That this is an evening of surface-level fun is reinforced by Clare Floyd Devries' fashion-show set complete with scene title projections flanking the stage. Designer Sarah Tonemah adds easily readable costumes for the collection of instantly recognizable first-world-problem types, like characters from a soap opera, only minus the opera.
It’s only when this floating soap bubble bursts at the end that the gnawingly bleak message takes hold. The takeaway is less than nothing, as if the bubble contained a vacuum that takes meaning with it.
Essentially a collection of character-connected one-act plays. The hook is that they are presented out of order, a gimmick that teases us into looking for connections and then taunts us for it.
The occasion for the first scene centers around an elevator which, as it happens, serves as the program’s cover image. Only playwright Hollinger uses this machina to get the deus ex of the play. At one point, the characters undergo an “RFT,” a “Random Floor Test.” It’s metaphor à la megaphone.
The cards of this shuffled deck are the characters. Part of the playwright’s fun is how he turns them over.
Trying to reveal as little as possible, Jill (Sophie Lee Morris) and Steve (Jeff Wittekiend) are poetry grad student roommates under professor Douglas (Robert Michael James). Steve’s girlfriend, Barb (Lexie Showalter) is the secretary to Hal (Brad Stephens) and Tanya (Jennifer Engler) is his wife. Marty (Ben Phillips) is an elevator repairman married to Nan (Susan Riley). Their dentist is Peter (Justin Flowers).
Parker’s production is mostly successful in the lighter sections. Phillips, for instance, makes a great happy-go-lucky elevator repairman. Flowers takes the show to new levels of laughs enduring a self-imposed self-help torment. Like any good sitcom, everyone gets a chance to make the audience laugh and the audience mostly obliges.
Less successful are the weightier scenes, but that might not be all the fault of the production. The playwright is taking shots at anything requiring faith (hope), after all. Not just spirituality, but anything that requires someone to believe in something larger than they are such, as marriage or education. Maybe the shallow view that created the characters limits the scenes' potential. Luckily, the laughs outweigh the losses. That is, until the final scene. What goes up…
After seven shuffles, a deck of cards is at it’s most random. It has achieved the full potential for chance. And that’s essential to keep the people at the table. After all, the game changes, the players don’t. No one would play if they didn’t believe that a fresh deal brought with it the possibility of a great hand.
What no one wants to believe is that it also brings with it the possibility of a terrible one.
Michael Hollinger doesn’t believe that the cards are stacked against us. He just wants to reinforce that the cards aren’t stacked at all. Everything is possible, which includes everything bad.
Hope, meet gravity.