As opposed to film, which tends to magnify emotions and undermine physicality, the stage can mute emotions and magnify all that is physical. "Departures", an 80-minute one act comedy in which most of the actors remain onstage from start to finish, is particularly theatrical in the emphasis it places on the cast's physical interactions.
The play is composed of eight individual stories, by eight different playwrights, woven together into a loosely cohesive whole. The show opens on an older woman, played by Jo Jordan, carrying a plastic baby and walking around an airport departure lounge. Like most such spaces, the room is cold and boring, that is until the other 14 passengers with their all-too-human tragi-comedies start stepping in.
Family arguments, cellphone melodramas or simple interactions between strangers pop up as different pairs of people wait to board their planes. One thing becomes clear after all the characters have had a chance to speak: they're all dysfunctional. In its celebratory acceptance of dysfunctional people, and in its self-conscious language, Departures couldn't be more contemporary. Almost too contemporary (think romantic comedy).
Some of the exchanges aren't great, but they're all entertaining and carefully put together. There's talk of war, fear, death and frustration, but the delivery is kept largely comedic -- a good choice in the end.
Because the eight playlets have no common dramatic axis, the common space unifies things. One thinks that no matter how different people's circumstances might be, they're all in the same world, the same departure room, as it were. For instance, when a pilot, KJ Lodge, shares his fear of flying with a runaway bride, Mary Evans, who shares how she just fled her wedding, the rest of the people in the terminal reacts in different ways. Some glance, others stare, check them out, jump in, look away, or merely turn on their iPods. Something's going on everywhere on stage at every point of the play, as if you were looking through an airport security camera.
Keeping most of the cast on stage during most of the play is not an easy feat. But director James J. Mellon shows much confidence in his cast. In a risky, but ultimately successful move, Mellon and lighting designer Luke Moyer choose to keep the lights rather flat and unchanging all throughout. There's almost no spot lighting.
The unfocussed lighting forces people to look around the stage and touches upon theater's unique ability to highlight physical interactions.
It's one thing to see a woman talking to a plastic baby, and quite another looking at a bunch of characters reacting to the same sight. Watching them take in the sight, hearing their comments fleshed out by gesture and body language adds a whole other dimension. Multiply that times eight, and you'll begin to understand the most interesting aspect of Departures.
Bob Morrisey, who plays a grandfather on his way to Iraq on a crazy mission to bring back his grandson, and Daisy Bishop, an angsty pre-teen girl with recently divorced parents stand out acting-wise. Morrisey shows his craft in his slow transformation from unengaged stranger to quasi-suicidal Vietnam vet. Bishop, who must be around 11 years old, is by far the cast's most natural actor. Kids sometimes have that edge over adults. They can act like themselves.
Also, Jonathan Zenz and Norman P. Dixon, who play a gay couple on their way to China to pick up an adopted daughter, should be congratulated on their chemistry. It's hard to think of them not being a couple.
Departures can satisfy two kinds of audiences that don't tend to be into the same kind of plays: People who like taking apart modern theater's daring formal aspects and people who enjoy simple stories with lots of good one-liners and tidy happy endings.
Performances run through July 23 at the NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd, North Hollywood. For tickets and information visit www.thenohoartscenter.com.