Credit: Brandon Dahlquist

A Catered Affair had only a short run on Broadway, and it’s not hard to see why. The 2008 musical by Harvey Fierstein and John Bucchino is subtle, low-key, and offbeat—not exactly what ticket buyers seem to be looking for on the Great White Way these days. And it was framed as a showcase for Faith Prince and Fierstein, two stars known for their comically eccentric personalities, even though it isn’t really a star vehicle. This bittersweet little gem is better suited to a small, ensemble-based company like Porchlight Music Theatre, which is treating us to a finely tuned Chicago premiere.

Based on The Catered Affair—a 1955 TV drama by Paddy Chayefsky, adapted for the big screen a year later—A Catered Affair is the story of a middle-aged Bronx couple: cab driver Tom Hurley and his emotionally clenched wife Aggie. It’s 1953 and the Hurleys are grieving for their son, killed in the Korean War. Aggie secretly blames Tom for encouraging the boy to enlist. The Hurleys’ frayed marriage is tested further when their free-spirited daughter, Janey, announces her intention to marry her boyfriend, Ralph. The young couple don’t want a big church wedding, just a quick little civil service.

That’s fine with Tom, who’s finally saved up enough money to buy his own taxi medallion and doesn’t want to squander his savings on a big blowout with lots of guests he doesn’t even know. But having a “catered affair” becomes a point of honor for Aggie. She’s (rightly) afraid that her friends will think the Hurleys are too poor or too cheap to celebrate in style—or, worse, that Janey is rushing to the altar because she’s “in trouble.” Mostly, though, Aggie wants expensive nuptials for Janey because she herself never had them.

Complicating the situation still more is Aggie’s brother Winston, a “confirmed bachelor” who lives with the Hurleys. When Janey announces her plan to invite only immediate family to the wedding, Winston takes umbrage, sure that he’s being ostracized because he’s gay. The perceived slight prompts a drunken outburst that humiliates the Hurleys in front of Ralph’s parents. Meanwhile, Janey is pained to learn that her best friend, Alice, can’t afford the gown she needs to serve as Janey’s matron of honor. The escalating emotional and financial pressures eventually bring Aggie and Tom’s relationship close to the breaking point.

Though Chayefsky is probably best remembered now for Network—a prescient, semisurreal 1976 satire of the infotainment industry—earlier works like The Catered Affair and Marty were marked by gritty naturalism and a compassionate view of ordinary people trying to hold on against a society that emphasizes conformity. Far from accepting the conventional view of marriage as the bedrock of American life, Aggie sees it as “an uphill climb” full of sacrifice and disappointment. The promise symbolized by Janey’s impending wedding forces Aggie to confront her unhappiness—which is largely of her own making.

Nick Bowling’s fine cast give this intimate story credibility. Rebecca Finnegan is superb as Aggie, a hard-bitten drudge transformed by wise self-examination. Craig Spidle brings texture to the underwritten role of Tom, and fine support is provided by Kelly Davis Wilson as Janey, Jim DeSelm as Ralph, Brittani Arlandis Green as Alice, and Larry Baldacci as both Ralph’s blowhard father and Tom’s cab-driving buddy. Anne Sheridan Smith, Caron Buinis, and Lauren Villegas are also first-rate as a trio of gossipy neighbor ladies. Jerry O’Boyle makes an excellent Winston, but the character remains cliched. Fierstein having built it up in order to play it himself on Broadway, it comes off as overblown, muddying the focus on Aggie and Tom.

Bucchino’s melodies aren’t particularly memorable. Still, they’re suited to the characters and flow believably from the situations those characters find themselves in. Under Doug Peck’s musical direction, the score—written in the art-song style also embraced by such post-Sondheim theater composers as Michael John La Chiusa and Adam Guettel—is lovely and lyrical, played by an onstage string quartet supported by offstage keyboard and reeds. Delicate instrumental textures emphasize the emotional fragility of people who conceal their feelings beneath tough exteriors. Audiences seeking an unusual, well-crafted musical drama performed by actors who disappear into their roles rather than dominate them will find much to appreciate here.