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Simpatico Theatre Project completes its 11th season with the premiere of Philadelphia playwright R. Eric Thomas's delightful comedy Time Is on Our Side. At its core, the play is about stories: What they mean to us, who owns them, and, of course, time.
Design that creates a world
Christopher Haig's stunning scenic design, which makes the tiny Louis Bluver Theatre at The Drake feel large, yet intimate, is two fascinating walls embracing the square space. Festooned with drawers, cubbies, chairs, empty picture frames, and other everyday items, it’s capped upstage center by an historical marker for a gay rights demonstration. All the items are one color. Alyssandra Docherty's lighting changes that color from gray to green, ivory, and tan at different moments, making this monochromatic flea market come to life in a variety of lovely ways.
It makes a great world for the play's action, which concerns podcasters Annie (Kristen Norine) and Curtis (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), who record their own historical plays and also do a weekly live 'cast, which they describe as "queers who bullshit about history." Curtis is happily married, while Annie suffers after a recent breakup.
Short, funny scenes are linked by sound designer Elizabeth Atkinson's inspired variations on the tick-tock refrain of The Chambers Brothers' 1968 hit "Time Has Come Today." A larger story develops when Annie finds her grandmother's hidden diary. Curtis wants to use the book, which he assumes is full of sex secrets (why else hide a diary?) to parlay their podcast into an NPR show, because "everyone loves a mystery." Annie, however, sees this as her personal history, part of her own journey, and forbids him access.
That doesn't stop Curtis, and each dives into the past.
Propelling the story
Brandi Burgess plays Annie's grandmother Gisella, as well as Annie's grandparents' old friend Mr. Ramondi, and Claudia, a West Philly "celesbian" and potential new love interest. Ryan Walter plays flamboyant voice actor Rene, Gisella's husband Lawrence, and another aged contemporary of the grandparents, Mr. Blankenship. Their confident slipping from one character to another, especially their bold yet nuanced turns as the longtime friends — one who eagerly shares old stories while the other resents the pair's "ransacking of the past" — show the assuredness of Jarrod Markman's direction. Performances that could easily be campy and superficial instead populate the play with genuine characters that propel the story.
Annie and Curtis' friendship is also effectively rendered, and that friendship is sorely tested by the diary's secrets. Norine's performance reveals Annie's delicate personality, plagued by an almost childish self-doubt that is tempered by hope. Thomas gives Curtis some of the play's most outrageous lines — his riff speculating about Rosa Parks' chitchat during her fateful bus ride is hilarious — but Clemens-Hopkins finds the loving friend beneath the banter.
What results is a comedy that might seem schmaltzy and silly, but shares a warm-hearted tale reveling in Philadelphia's gay life — past, present, and hopeful future.
What, When, Where
Time Is on Our Side. By R. Eric Thomas, Jarrod Markman directed. Through June 26, 2016. Simpatico Theatre Project at the Louis Bluver Theatre, The Drake, 302 S. Hicks St., Philadelphia. (267) 437-7529 or simpaticotheatre.org.
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