The thin line between comedy and tragedy is tread quite astonishingly well by Bekah Brunstetter in her 2011 play Be A Good Little Widow, now getting a pitch-perfect Los Angeles Premiere, one that exemplifies intimate L.A. theater at its finest.
25-year-old Melody (Larisa Oleynik) is doing her best to be a good little wife to her lawyer husband Craig (Donovan Patton) when first we meet the newlyweds. A move to Craig’s native Connecticut may bring Melody’s hubby into closer proximity with his widowed mother Hope (Caroline Aaron), but it leaves his citified bride isolated in their New England home and spending far too many hours waiting for Craig to return from yet another business trip.
“Project Runway” and yoga help Melody to while away those lonely hours, but too much time on her hands leaves her vulnerable to the masculine charms of Craig’s sexy paralegal Brad (Trey McCurley), though to Melody’s credit, this goes no further than a bit of harmless albeit risky flirtation when Brad pops by on an errand for Craig.
Then the unthinkable happens, and Melody must deal with her husband’s sudden loss, the disapproving presence of Craig’s overbearing mother, and the still dangerously attractive Brad.
Did I mention that Be A Good Little Widow is a comedy?
Well, comedy-drama is more like it, though its first twenty minutes play so delightfully, only the play’s title gives away the darker territory it will soon be entering.
Indeed, part of what makes Brunstetter’s one-acter so memorable is its playwright’s ability to find laughter in life’s most tragic moments, that and the four painfully human, ultimately endearing characters she has created.
Unlike Be A Good Little Widow’s 2012 West Coast Premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe, its Los Angeles producers have acknowledged the prodigious talents residing in our own backyard, and this L.A.-based cast could hardly be better—nor any more stellar.
A glance at Oleynik’s TV/film résumé reveals dozens upon dozens of starring and recurring roles, most recently on Hawaii Five-O, Mad Men, and Pretty Little Liars, experience that pays off to perfection in the intimacy of the NoHo Arts Center’s 45-seat theater, where audience members are quite literally camera-close. Not only does the oh-so likeable Oleynik have the audience immediately in the palm of her hand with her sunny, girl-next-door beauty and quirky charm, her seamless transitions from a newlywed’s giddiness to a Connecticut housewife’s boredom to a new widow’s gut-wrenching pain are quite breathtaking indeed.
Opposite Oleynik, a sensational Aaron brings decades of work with Hollywood’s finest (five films with Woody Allen, four with Mike Nichols, three with Nora Ephron) and Broadway’s best (including Nichols and John Turturro) to her absolutely brilliant work on the NoHo Arts Center stage. Aaron adds her own distinctively earthy shades to Hope, a grieving mother who finds herself now utterly alone, even as she continues her by-the-rules mourning of Craig’s father. When Hope finally allows herself to express the grief she’s kept bottled up for so many years, Aaron’s performance achieves heart-stopping magnificence.
Not surprisingly, scenes between Oleynik and Aaron are the play’s richest and often its most hilarious. Melody wants Skittles at Craig’s funeral. A horrified Hope responds that she has already hired a caterer. Hope suggests that Melody join her Widows’ League. Melody would rather find comfort in the rap music Craig played while working out. (“Apparently, when he was running he liked to feel like he could kill people,” she quips.) It’s no wonder, then, that their gradual softening to each other as two women united in shared widowhood proves so powerful and rewarding.
Opposite these two leading ladies, the tall, dark, and handsome Patton displays sitcom lead-ready charm as a young husband who finds himself far too often away from home, a final scene opposite Oleynik revealing heartstrings-touching dramatic gifts as well.
Last but not least is McCurley’s standout work as Brad, a young man whose devotion to his boss makes his attraction to the boss’s wife all the more poignant, a good guy tempted to do things a good guy shouldn’t. Though McCurley may be the acting ensemble’s newest kid on the block, his leading man sex appeal and classically trained acting chops bode well for bigger things ahead.
Director Sara Botsford proves herself an actor’s director par excellence throughout, not only eliciting razor-sharp performances from her cast but managing quite ingeniously Brunstetter’s transitions from reality to fantasy and back, aided and abetted by Lacey Anzeic’s splendid scenic design (Craig and Melody’s Connecticut home in 45-seat-theater miniature) and Dan Weingarten’s exquisite lighting design, which matches the play’s tonal shifts at every twist and turn. Christopher “CB” Brown’s sound design is a splendid one too, mixing music, TV news reports, and effects (one gut-punching one in particular). Costumes fit each character’s personal choices to a T.
Be A Good Little Widow is produced for 49th Street Parallel Theatre by Botsford, Brown Andrew Carlberg, and Oleynik in association with NoHo Arts Center. Jennifer McHugh is stage manager.
L.A. theatergoers can count themselves fortunate indeed that Bekah Brunstetter’s uniquely wonderful Be A Good Little Widow has arrived to delight and move Angelinos, and even more so that its Los Angeles Premiere has turned out such a standout in every respect.
NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.
April 18, 2014
Photos: Andrew Pagana