Departures is a theatrical experiment that works.  Seven playwrights each
independently  wrote a 10-15 minute one-act about an airline passenger or
group of passengers gathered in an airport waiting area. Open At The Top’s
artistic director James L. Mellon then compiled and condensed the playlets,
“composing” them into a fluid hour and twenty minutes of intertwining stories. 
The result is an entertaining and often moving dramedy that feels for the most
part like the work of a single writer. We meet, in order of appearance:

•        Robert Arbogast as a 30something man who is scheduled to marry his
college sweetheart in two hours, yet about to take a one-way flight in the
opposite direction in David Ferguson’s Departures. “Fidelity is non-negotiable,”
he declares, and we learn that he has a greater reason than most to be
certain that his pregnant fiancée has not lived up to her half of the bargain. 

•        Melanie Ewbanks as a grandmother living with cancer who enjoys
spending time at airports and talking to the doll she carries with her, in
Penelope Richards’ Eye Spy.  Anyone at the airport within the doll’s earshot is
warned to watch their language around Ewbanks’ “child,” since “enthusiasm
is no excuse for profanity.” Ewbanks’ character mostly serves to connect the
various other stories.

•        Jonathan Zenz and Michael Craig Shapiro as a gay couple about to
head off to China to pick up the baby girl they have been spending the last
year in preparation to adopt, in Mark Wyrick’s Mai Ling. As they worry about
(among other things) the possibility that they might have forgotten to pack
diapers, it seems clear that Zenz is the bright and sunny one and Shapiro is the
more cynical/realistic of the two, a man who has no intention of subsituting
“tinkle” for “take a pee” just because he’s about to become a daddy. When
a phone call threatens the adoption, Shapiro’s true feelings towards Mai Ling
are allowed to surface, and we see the depth of both men’s commitment to
their not yet official child.

•        Understudy Katie Williams as a bride-to-be fleeing her wedding and Roger
Ainsle as a pilot fleeing his about-to-depart flight, in Fear of Flying by Duane
Poole, which also features J.R. Mangles as the abandoned groom.  “So, you ran
out on your wedding?” asks Ainsle, to which the matrimonially gowned Williams
replies, wide-eyed, “Is it that obvious?”  Just as Williams has had sudden doubts
about her impending marriage, so Ainsle is facing a sudden loss of faith.  “I
have no idea what keeps them up!” he reveals.

•        Danny Murphy as a crabby wheel-chair bound man about to take his first
flight since a near fatal accident, and Curtis C. as an airport porter in Michael
Catlin’s The Man In The Chair And The Porter.  Murphy is not one to mince
words. “The Americans With Disabilities Act can kiss my ass,” he gripes.  After a
steady stream of crankiness, C. has had about enough of Murphy and blurts
out, “I’ve been warned to deal with your kind of people.”  He clarifies. “Angry
people.” C. is from “N’owlanz,” telling Murphy that his experiences as a Katrina
survivor have enabled him to “turn a bad thing into a good.” Hard words for
Murphy to hear, since he has an even greater reason than most accident
victims to be bitter.

•        Effie Hortis as a flight attendant leaving semi-pornographic messages “de
amor” on her older, married, and apparently ex Spanish lover’s voice mail in
Hortis’s My First True Love.

•        And finally, Bob Morrisey as a man about to travel to the Middle East to
bring back his soldier grandson, whose stay there has been unfairly extended,
and Jim Lunsford as the soldier’s father in Lunsford’s Remember the Hawks. 
Lunsford is at the airport to persuade his father not to go, to which Morrisey
responds, “It’s okay to be afraid, Bobby.  But we can’t let it keep us on the
bench. Yellow ribbons won’t save our boy.”  Not until the final moments of
Departures do we learn whether one, neither, or both of the men will board
the flight.

In a cute twist on pre-show announcements, flight attendant Hortis uses
stewardess-appropriate gestures as an off stage voice informs audience
members to look for the nearest exits, refrain from smoking, unwrap small
candies, note important features in the program, and above all to turn off all
cell phones “as they have a tendency to interfere with art.”

As might be expected, some of the stories work better than others. Still, those
that work, work very well indeed.  Performances of the cast of 12 range from
good to excellent, with three particular standouts: Arbogast, who gradually
reveals the rage beneath his character’s pleasant exterior; Zenz, effervescent
in his joyful anticipation of fatherhood; and best of all, Morrisey, whose
spontaneity and fire as a man willing to face real danger to save his grandson
are electric.  Williams deserves mention for giving a confident and winning
performance her first time out as does OATT for hiring quadriplegic film vet
Murphy to portray The Man In The Chair.

Dana Moran Williams has designed a very effective waiting area, complete
with standard issue gray cloth and metal chairs and acoustic ceiling, with
sound designer Zenz’s perfectly ever-present background muzak. Megan S.
Densmore’s costumes are excellent, from Ewbanks’ orange pantsuit to Hortis’s
flight attendant uniform, to Williams’ wedding gown with its yard long train
and Mangles’ tuxedo and cummerbund minus the pants (which he had to
leave with airport security because they kept causing the alarm to sound). 
Luke Moyer’s lighting morphs subtly as the focus changes from one story to

Along with Mellon, director Morrisey (pulling double duty here) deserves special
credit for making Departures a unified whole, keeping the cast on the same
page, and on a purely physical level, maintaining audience interest by
keeping the actors moving about.

After seeing Departures, sitting in an airport waiting room will never be the
same again!

NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood

–Steven Stanley
February 1, 2008

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