Griffin Theatre Company

To begin with, the violet-eyed Mary Rawlings is dead of an overdose of sedatives. Why did the young writer do it? Was it unhealed psychological wounds from her abusive childhood, subsequent nervous breakdown, or both? Was it her monstrous vanity, which couldn’t be satisfied? Is there a clue in her literary output? Or was her self-destruction the result of some misstep by one of her two suitors, men she was beginning to have trouble distinguishing?

Almost Like Being Here opens with the two lovers, Sandy and Ansil, learning of their shared sweetheart’s death and attempting to fathom the reasons. Since both are artists currently mired in boring and compromising jobs, with all the dogged egocentricity required to exist in such a state, each assumes that her suicide was sparked by some unperceived transgression on his part. When a final epistle from the late beloved seems to confirm Sandy’s guilty suspicions, he sets out to discover the nature of his crime.

“You have to unstick yourself from other people–then you’ll have the time to find out who you really are,” Mary’s therapist advises him. “We’re all alone in this world, and that fact can either depress you or it can set you free.” But Sandy, a struggling actor with more than his share of adrenaline, cannot unstick himself so easily. After a week of obsessive searching–during which he loses a job opportunity and a discontented girlfriend and comes close to losing his vocal chords when Dr. Rawlings, Mary’s estranged father, nearly strangles him during an examination–the mystery of her enigmatic farewell is revealed. It brings him relief, not comfort, but Sandy’s review of his past forces him to evaluate his present and to realize that his duty is to change what he can and accept what he cannot. “Don’t be sad that you didn’t invent happiness,” says the voice from the grave.

William Massolia has crafted a surprisingly clean two-hour adaptation of the novel by Tom Leopold–no easy task, since there’s little significant external action to this story of Sandy’s spiritual journey from self-absorbed isolation to an awareness of his responsibilities. This delicate process is prevented from becoming precious by the farcical subplot detailing the goings-on at the show where Sandy’s employed–the script involves a transvestite G-man, and there’s a squabbling producer and director, a Stalin-esque stage manager, and a temperamental female impersonator who shares both dressing-room space and homely advice with Sandy. (“There’s only one way you’re going to learn the truth, and that’s to ask Mary herself,” he snaps in exasperation at Sandy’s gloom, and when Sandy protests that this is no longer possible, he retorts, “Exactly my point! Nothing is going to bring her back to answer you, so forget it!”)

The Griffin ensemble, performing in their spacious new Andersonville quarters, deliver uniformly intelligent performances, carefully constructing personalities for their eccentric characters in a play where the slightest trace of caricature could bring the soapsuds flooding in: Ed Shimp as the vaguely fascist psychiatrist and Kevin Farrell as the cynical cross-dresser go to extraordinary lengths to maintain the humanity of their characters throughout. Debra Schommer similarly goes beyond good-woman cliches in her portrayal of the long-suffering backstage intern who facilitates Sandy’s reemergence into the world, supplying an animating subtext for this shallowly written role. Likewise Christopher Gerson plays Mary’s brother, who has a speech impediment, with never a trace of condescension or cloying cuteness. Even at their most clumsily human, the two hapless suitors–Eric Zudak as Ansil and Pete Zahradnick as Sandy–retain our sympathy.

Under Richard Barletta’s intricate direction, and assisted by Becky Flory’s ingenious set and Massolia’s witty incidental music, Almost Like Being Here emerges as yet another of the great-things-in-little-packages products of a company whose excellence and expertise have been ignored much too long.