Center Stage's new play reflects the fragility behind the laughter in uncertain times

Mud Blue Sky

Written by Marisa Wegrzyn

Directed by Susanna Gellert

Through April 14 at Center Stage

Mud Blue Sky is a play that examines the kinds of connections we make when we are at work, out of town, in between things, or generally untethered and unhinged. Marisa Wegrzyn's script focuses on two flight attendants, a former co-worker who got laid off for being too fat, and a high school senior at a hotel near O'Hare airport.

As the play begins, Beth (Susan Rome) wearily enters her room and is quickly joined by her overly loquacious colleague Sam (Eva Kaminsky). Beth goes about trying to change into her sweats as Sam attempts to convince her to come out to Cotters Lounge to have drinks with Angie, their former colleague and friend.

The banter between the two women is funny, but the performances seem to emphasize the humor a little too much, waiting a beat too long to show that it is a punch line. The actors play the parts here as if they are Flo and Alice working in Mel's Diner in the 1970s television sitcom Alice.

Some of this may have to do with circumstances. The play's original lead, Kate Levy, dropped out only weeks before the play opened, and Susan Rome stepped in. Occasionally it felt like she was still feeling her way around the nuance of the dialogue on opening night. But some of it is certainly due to Susanna Gellert's direction. It seems like an intentional choice to play this and most of the other scenes like a sitcom, because that's how people act who don't really have much to say to each other when they are stuck in in-between spaces.

When Sam leaves, the real drama begins as Beth goes out to the parking lot-nicely represented by a darkened section of gravel at the front of the stage-to buy a joint from Jonathan (Justin Kruger), a high school student whom, we eventually learn, she saved from a drug dog at the airport earlier in the year. As his tuxedo indicates, it is Jonathan's prom night. The fact that he is there with Beth shows that there is something as missing in his life as there is in hers, and Kruger makes the most of that teenage angst and confusion.

As Beth smokes the joint, their dialogue continues to move in little stoner riffs, on everything from Stevie Wonder's autographs to ear-kissing. But the weed costs more than she expected and Beth brings Jonathan to her room, where she passes out and he watches pay-per-view porn (the Center Stage audience consistently laughed the loudest at the porn jokes). High farce ensues when Sam returns, eventually calling brilliantly sad-sack Angie (the excellent Cynthia Darlow) with a $400 bottle of cognac. But, we quickly see that all the wisecracking is a form of gallows humor used to survive the worst.

I've long hoped that this Great Recession would revive a sense of gallows humor on the American stage, and Wegrzyn has obliged-and then some, as each of the characters struggles to make sense of this fearful new world, both dreaming of what could be (taking the shitty buyout package and brewing craft beer) and coming back to the reality of sticking with the small pleasures of a job one is good at.

As the play ends, we come to see the compassion and confusion behind the laughter so that the over-the-top sitcom quality of the first scenes makes perfect sense and Rome's initial vulnerability in the role has transformed into an asset. ■

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