You could hardly call Francesca “The Girl Who Has Everything,” but she for one is not complaining. She has a job and a small circle of sort-of friends, and while she doesn’t have a husband or a boyfriend, what she does have is a life which includes “people, cable, books on occasion, sex when required. And an apartment that always gets compliments.” And then she meets Anton.
Francesca is the 30something heroine of David Hilder’s highly entertaining romcom The Insidious Impact Of Anton, whose snappy World Premiere production at the El Centro proves a terrific showcase for the New York playwright’s quirky spin on life and a just-right star vehicle for its leading lady Tracy Eliott under Richard Tatum’s ingenious direction.
Francesca spends her days not particularly challenged by the office job her uncle Victor offered her when she got tired of retail—and not particularly interested in anything or anyone else. Conversations with co-workers Miranda and Adele rarely go farther than who’s cute on this season’s American Idol. Richard, her ex, still carries an obvious torch for “Chess,” and though the possibility of a roll in the hay for old-time’s sake does exist, it’s unlikely to lead to an honest-to-goodness rekindling of old flames. Gaybor (i.e. gay neighbor) Nate does add a certain sparkle to Francesca’s evenings at home, but unlike Francesca, Nate has a dating life, so his visits tend to be pop-bys that don’t last all that long.
Then comes that meet-cute with Anton in the office kitchen. (“I wish you to move aside when you put milk in your fucking coffee,” she informs him in a sarcastic imitation of his Eastern European syntax which flies right over Anton’s seemingly fresh-off-the-boat noggin.) And that’s just the start of a series of seemingly chance meetings—at the bus stop, at the dry cleaners… You name it, he’s there. Before long Francesca has agreed to dinner with the ubiquitous gent, “which is not a date” because she has “absolutely no romantic interest in him, and if he wants to have sex with me, he can fall off the nearest log.”
Dinner does indeed turn out to be just dinner that first time, but before long Anton has turned into considerably more than a mere dinner companion. Having lost her job due to her “halfhearted work ethic and frequent—and on occasion truly stunning—expletives,” Francesca now finds herself working for Anton as his personal assistant. And that’s not all that changes in Chess’s life. Instead of sitting around an office all day with boring coworkers, she’s picking up dry cleaning for a living, and even more surprisingly, she’s starting to use expressions like “for the love of Mike” instead of her habitual “oh for Christ’s sake.”
Who the heck is this Anton (who by the way no one in Francesca’s life has ever seen) and why is he having such an insidious impact on her life?
Far be it for this reviewer to spoil the end-of-Act-One surprise playwright Hilder has in store for you or the many comic delights of Act Two. Suffice it to say that the surprise is probably not what you’re expecting—and there are numerous reasons to return to your seat after intermission, not the least of which are the performances of Insidious Anton’s two leading players, and several delightful supporting turns as well.
The role of Francesca proves a terrific showcase for Eliott, who like Katharine Hepburn before her combines a gift for the acerbic with snappy comic timing and off-center romantic appeal. It’s a huge role, one that has the actress never leaving the stage, frequently addressing the audience, zipping from scene change to scene change, and never missing a beat.
Opposite her, Mikhail Blokh is a foreign-accented, English syntax-mutilating charmer, just the sort to wear a girl’s resistance down in a case of opposites attracting—with sizzle!
Daniel Montgomery is so utterly winning as Francesca’s gayboy-next-door that you wish Hilder would write a spin-off play just for Nate—on condition that Montgomery be guaranteed the role. June Carryl and Patty Jean Robinson provide solid office support for Eliott, with a cast-against-type Carryl particularly funny as flighty flibbertigibbet Adele. Warren Davis is spot-on as Francesca’s all-business, no-charm uncle Victor. As Robert, an amusing John Gale does his best to embody the lovable hetero lug of Hilder’s script.
Hilder’s script requires instantaneous scene changes (“shift to a bus stop,” “shift to a restaurant,” “shift to work,” etc.) that could easily bog down a production less inventively directed and designed than the one the splendid Tatum and his crackerjack team have come up with here. Katie Polebaum’s cleverly off-kilter set cues us in from the get-go that we’ll be in the not-quite-real world, and together with Corwin Evans’ ingenious projections—which show us what’s atop whichever location we’re supposed to be in—make for lickety-split scene changes. (I love the way Victor is pushed on and offstage on his castered office chair.) Christopher Moscatiello’s sound design is a winner too, working in precision tandem with Michelle Stann’s lighting design to create a whimsical, occasionally otherworldly mood, though Stann’s lighting could do a better job at flattering Eliott in her “close-up” moments. Sarah Le Ferber’s costumes are just the character definers they ought to be. Shelley Delayne is scenic painting assistant, Antonina Flowers costume assistant, Stephanie Boltjes stage manager, and Rachel Landis assistant stage manager.
The Insidious Impact Of Anton is precisely the kind of under-the-radar production that might easily escape notice in the more theatrically crowded seasons of fall, winter, and spring. Fewer summer offerings give it considerably more of the visibility it richly deserves, and theatergoers in search of romantic comedy with a bite could do no better than to seek it out. Anton’s impact may well be insidious, but it’s pretty darned appealing as well.
El Centro Theatre, 804 North El Centro Avenue, Hollywood.
July 24, 2011
Photos: Sarah LeFeber