Nine years following her acrimonious split from Brian, Vanya (nee Yvonne Patricia) takes pen to paper to write (yes, write, not email) her onetime creative partner with a request. “Dear Brian,” she writes.  “I know I can’t make up with you but I hope we can be friends.”

Thus begins Setup & Punch, Mark Saltzman’s funny, tuneful, touching, and unpredictable look at a friendship that went sour—and one friend’s attempt to reconnect years later. Told in present time with frequent flashbacks to earlier, happier times, this comedy with songs showcases a charismatic, talented trio of actors—Hedy Burress as Vanya, Andrew Leeds as Brian, and P.J. Griffith as Jan, the rock musician whose arrival in the pair’s lives changed everything between them.  Directed with accustomed imagination and panache by Daniel Henning, Setup & Punch proves yet another winner from the Blank Theatre Company.

Brian, now a successful Hollywood screenwriter happily coupled with a man named Cooper, and Vanya, perhaps not quite so contentedly married to a lawyer who just doesn’t get her jokes like Brian did, first meet during their years at Cornell.  (They chose the university for its high suicide rate, a sure sign of a school with a good theater arts department.) Then a geeky eager-beaver of a girl whose sunny attitude towards life would make Pollyanna seem positively gloomy by comparison, Vanya falls head over heels in love with this equally nerdy but decidedly more cynical young Jewish lad from the moment she sees him take a bow at the end of a college performance.  The two click right from the start, and continue to throughout most of their friendship and song-writing collaboration. In fact, there’s only one hitch as far as romance is concerned, and that is the teensy-weensy matter of Brian’s sexual orientation, though since he remains deeply closeted at college, it’s easy for Vanya to convince herself of the potential for more than friendship to bloom between them, if only she is patient.

When the opportunity arises for the two fledgling songwriters to put their talents together for a musical revue, the result is a hilarious ditty entitled “Show Tune Hearts.”  Boy and girl meet cute on a subway, and before you know it, their voices are raised in song, first in Kander and Ebb mode, then a la Disney (“Little birds will braid my hair”), then in the style of Andrew Lloyd Webber circa Phantom, and finally in Sondheim fashion in his Company phase (“Being alive is being alone”).

The host of the revue, Howard Pfeiffer, likes the pair’s lyrics, but their music not so much, and so he sets them up with Jan, a composer of Top 40 hits who is known as “the rock-and-roll sex god from Santa Cruz.”  Said hunk shows up in true cocky rock-star attitude and attire, telling the eccentrically garbed Vanya “I like the way you dress. You take a lot of chances. A sort of Minnie Mouse meets Czech whore.”  As to whether he writes words or music first, Jan tells Brian, “The ‘groove.’”  Our young closet-case hero is smitten from first hello.

Jan proves the catalyst for the duo’s songwriting success, but also, eventually, for the dissolution of their friendship, or as a still bitter Brian puts it, “the day I got my pink slip from you.”

As letters turn to emails (they’re faster) and then to IMs (faster still) and finally to phone calls, Brian and Vanya relive the past, she eager to forgive and forget, he in a far less conciliatory mood.  Wasn’t it her own fault that she kept seeing him in a romantic light? Couldn’t she intuit that he was gay, even back in his closeted days? “I knew and simultaneously did not know,” Vanya tells him now, years later.

Will old feelings prove strong enough for Brian to forgive and forget, or are past wounds simply too deep to ever heal?

Those expecting a predictable resolution to Brian and Vanya’s story may be in for a surprise, as sweetness comes laced with a touch of cyanide in Saltzman’s tasty, tangy treat.  The playwright, a 6-time Emmy winner for his work on Sesame Street, knows how to be funny in one sentence (a gay man who loves musical theater is called a “show-mo”) and biting in the next (Brian tells Vanya, “Anyone who knows me knows not to mention you.”) and then touching in the next (Vanya tells Brian, “There is a certain way I’m joyful and it only happens with you.”).

Henning couldn’t have come up with a better cast to bring Setup & Punch to life.  Burress (she’s “Setup” to Brian’s “Punch”) is a marvelous comedienne with the same quirky likeability that made Gilda Radner a star, whether in manic mode or aching over the still “naked wound” that is her love for Brian.  Leeds matches Burress every step of the way, combining cynicism (the perfect antidote to Vanya’s perkiness) and nerdy charm.  Both are talented singers (their “Show Tune Hearts” is almost worth the price of admission), and Leeds (who at thirteen played Jason in the original Broadway cast of Falsettos) does a fine job on the piano as well. Completing the trio is the sexy, charismatic Griffith, whose musical theater credits (including Sky in the First National Tour of Mamma Mia) and rock credentials (he’s fronted three different bands) make him the perfect Jan, as exciting vocally as he is as an actor. Scenes in which the sexually ambiguous rocker/songwriter attempts to loosen up the tightly-wound Brian (which include pulling off Brian’s sweater and unbuttoning his shirt, the better to show the world some skin) positively crackle with sexual tension. Griffith also appears briefly and to good effect as Miguel, a young Mexican priest who encourages his friend Brian to reconcile with Vanya.

Henning, working with set designer Ian P. Garrett and lighting designer R. Christopher Stokes keeps the action moving lickety-split from present to past and then back again, the Blank’s split-level stage’s upper level serving as a New York City subway stop while below, stacks of boxes painted to resemble Manhattan skyscrapers serve as various other locales.  Michael Mullen’s costumes are a delight, from Jan’s tight jeans, chains, and leather, to Brian’s button-down shirts and khakis, to past-tense Vanya’s wild, unconventional outfits (one has her looking like a canary-yellow Alice In Wonderland with fire engine red stockings) to her somewhat more subdued contemporary wear.  Warren Davis’ sound design works well too, mixing live piano with prerecorded tracks for the show’s four catchy, clever original songs (by Berton Averre and Rob Meurer).

Ultimately, Setup & Punch is about the complexities of friendship, sexual identity, and love, and about the need we all feel to be (and to stand up for) who we are. Brian and Vanya learn life lessons over the course of the play’s ten years (told in 90 fast-moving minutes), entertaining the audience every step of the way. The Blank has followed Speech & Debate and The Jazz Age with yet another winner, and finishes its 2009 season on a high note indeed.

The Blank 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
May 21, 2009
Photos: Rick Baumgartner

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