Even fabled Greenwich Village, loopy with the most self-sufficient, focused people in New York (I know, 'cuz I used to live there), can't stem its residents' insatiable need to fraternize, especially if it means a nightly hike to an apartment building rooftop over a period of years. In fact, Terrence McNally's Unusual Acts of Devotion, the current La Jolla Playhouse entry, wouldn't be complete if it were set at any other time or inside a home—such is the camouflage that darkness and the outdoors extend to five motley West 10th Street apartment dwellers, whose longings are probably too much for the light of day.
Those longings speak to these folks' win-loss marks when it comes to companionship, particularly the loss part. Love is an imperfect proposition, and this play calmly illuminates those flaws. But it's the ethereal set, as much as McNally's prose, that drives them home here. Director Trip Cullman showcases the design accordingly, and he's coaxed an outstanding turn from quintuple Emmy Award winner Doris Roberts (Everybody Loves Raymond). This is the best Playhouse production I've seen in probably four seasons, a brooding, muscular nod to the crap we leave behind amid love's ugly twists and turns.
“What the Jesus Christ're you lookin' at?” cranky ol' Mrs. Darnell (Roberts) rasps at the audience to open the piece. She may have worked all her long life in a lowly liquor store, but her query contains the rhetoric of an oracle. Of course, we're looking at people whose blisses and sorrows we can never comprehend, like the bravely but poorly hidden remorse behind Chick Hogan (Richard Thomas of The Waltons fame), a tour bus operator whose suicidal gay lover took a dive off this very roof. Tenants Nadine and husband Leo (Maria Dizzia and Joe Manganiello), in love from day one, are celebrating their five-year wedding anniversary and Nadine's pregnancy—ironic amid Hogan's misery, which is punctuated by his long-ago straight affair with the death-fixated, besotted Josie (Harriet Harris).
Josie spots the dark angel (Evan Powell) lurking from the building's water tower before anybody else; his shady advance on Darnell is the key to the story and its testament to these characters' interdependence and failed attempts at abiding love.
The action isn't all that sexy, but it contains enough meat to justify scene designer Santo Loquasto's gargantuan effort. Watch as his dank Village takes on a life of its own, lighting up while the night moves on and blacking out with the dark angel's descent from the tower. Meanwhile, Cullman uses the set like a theme park, propelling his people in and out of the fixtures as a first-rate development tool. And Roberts is exceptional as Darnell, the weary, loudmouthed den mother whose New York jadedness is no match for the aging, ironical philosopher within.
Manganiello's Leo is a jazz clarinetist by trade, but you wouldn't know it amid Manganiello's earthy bearing and Leo's threadbare speeches about his art. Otherwise, there's plenty of richness to go around here as the Playhouse gradually sheds its cookie-cutter comportment, which hadn't been working for quite a while. This review is based on the evening performance of June 13. Unusual Acts of Devotion runs throughJune 28 at The Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive in La Jolla. $30-$75. 858-500-1010, www.lajollaplayhouse.org.Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.