Off by some

People’s Light presents Joseph Dougherty’s Off By One

3 minute read
In a cozy, warmly lit cabin living room, Strathairn stands at center and the others sit or lie on couches and chairs.
From left: Mary Elizabeth Scallen, David Strathairn, Aubie Merrylees, and Claire Inie-Richards in ‘Off By One’ at People’s Light. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)

Novelist Anne Lamott coined the term “shitty first draft” to describe the metamorphosis a work takes from ragged beginning to polished end. Off By One, a new play about a writer and the impact of his work certainly doesn’t warrant any expletives. Yet it also doesn’t feel as if it’s gone through the crystallization needed to fully realize its vision in this production at People’s Light.

I suspect the premature premiere may be due to the presence of David Strathairn. The Academy Award-nominated actor has a longstanding relationship with the Malvern-based company and with Joseph Dougherty, the play’s author. His presence guarantees a healthy box office—the weeknight performance I attended was nearly sold out—and extra press attention, both of which are especially welcome during the soft summer months.

Still, in its current state, this slim work about the power of connection brought on by poetry and chance seems disjointed and tedious. It succeeds mostly when Strathairn takes center stage, narrating the memories of Douglas Roote, a salty old scribe who opines his literary past and uncertain future from a fisherman’s cottage on the tip of Long Island. (Daniel Zimmerman designed the handsome set, lit warmly by Dennis Parichy.) Although the device of direct-address narrative is overused in contemporary theater, Strathairn’s Doug proves scintillating company, even at his most curmudgeonly.

Banality over connection

The play veers toward banality after Doug’s death, when a simple mistake sets kismet in motion. After his former colleague Myra (Mary Elizabeth Scallen) sends a condolence text to the wrong telephone number, she becomes connected to Fran (Claire Inie-Richards), a whimsical young woman who finds herself charmed by the happenstance. Fran peppers Myra with questions about the youthful summer she spent as Doug’s research assistant, devours his poetry, and generally annoys her boyfriend Matthew (Aubie Merrylees), who finds his partner’s fascination with this chance encounter cloying.

The fast friendship between Myra and Fran comes across as trite and formulaic—even in a state of grief, it strains credulity that a mature, self-possessed woman like Myra would tolerate Fran’s boundary-pushing entreaties for as long as she does, much less encourage them. The character of Matthew also emerges more as a plot device than a partner, there only to provide a wet blanket to douse Fran’s flights of fancy. Abigail Adams’s stiff direction does little to achieve a sense of genuine connection amid the relationships, and the performances generally linger on one note each: nostalgia for Scallen, quixotic for Inie-Richards, and dense for Merrylees.

Occasionally justifying the proceedings

The drama manages a frisson of excitement in a long, late scene between Strathairn and Scallen. Here is what the action has been missing all night: a real sense of connection and longing between two people who clearly mean very much to each other. Strathairn finds a wonderful warmth beneath Doug’s brackish interior, and Scallen shows the adventurous girl that Myra once was. But this section, which comes midway through the action, provides only a momentary diversion, and the 95-minute play ends on a note of anticlimax.

It’s admirable to find an actor of Strathairn’s stature spending part of his summer working at a small regional theater, and his compelling performance occasionally justifies the proceedings. As it stands, though, Off By One feels off by a lot more than that. Like a resourceful poet killing his darlings, it’s time for Dougherty to go back to the drafting board.

What, When, Where

Off By One. By Joseph Dougherty, directed by Abigail Adams. $47-$62. Through July 7, 2024, at the Steinbright Stage at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, Pennsylvania. (610) 644-3500 or


The People’s Light campus is fully wheelchair-accessible. There will be a relaxed, ASL-interpreted, and audio-described performance of Off By One on Sunday, June 30, at 2pm. Smart caption glasses will be available for all performances between June 25 and July 7 (advanced reservations required), and all performances between July 2 and July 7 will be open captioned.

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