Seven years ago, Erik Patterson’s best friend’s head “exploded,” or at least that’s how the playwright describes the brain aneurysm that sent him rushing to the Manhattan ICU where best friend Uma and her fellow aneurysm victims waged their life-and-death struggle while loved ones watched and waited, hoped and prayed, and bonded with similarly concerned strangers in the hospital waiting room.

Cut to 2014, and the author of the multiple Scenie-winning He Asked For It has taken these real-life events as the point of departure for his latest, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, now getting its World Premiere at Hollywood’s Theatre Of NOTE, and in words I used to describe its predecessor, Patterson’s newest play is “fresh, entertaining, gripping and entirely unpredictable” … and beautifully acted to boot.

Like Patterson’s own Uma, freshly arrived on a celebratory visit to Manhattan with her brand-new fiancé when the abovementioned brain explosion changed the course of her life, I Wanna Hold Your Hand’s fictionalized Frank fights for survival as his fiancée Ada begins day after day of awaiting his return to the land of the living, all the while knowing full well that life might just take her intended in the opposite direction.

Like Uma’s fiancé and Patterson before her, it is in the ICU waiting room that I Wanna Hold Your Hand’s Ada (Kirsten Vangsness) meets teacher Paul (Nicholas S. Williams) and actress Julia (Alina Phelan), a brother and sister whose Beatles-loving mother has only just come out of a brain aneurysm-induced coma, the threesome and Julia’s actor husband Josh (Keston John) bonding over coffee and crosswords and Go Fish.

I WANNA HOLD - 1 That I Wanna Hold Your Hand takes these four characters and a couple of others beyond their initial hospital acquaintance is about the only spoiler you’ll get in this review, for to reveal more than this would be to (forgive the redundancy) spoil the many surprises Patterson has up his sleeve for the very real characters he has created, a sextet brought to authentic, messy, unpredictable life on the Theater Of NOTE stage by five gifted NOTE vets and a talented NOTE newbie.

Criminal Minds’ Vangsness follows her recent superb work in The Theatre @ Boston Court’s Everything You Touch with yet another memorable star turn as Ada, a woman hoping against hope that her fiancé’s battle to survive won’t end a connubial life that has, to quote Karen Carpenter, “only just begun.”

John, Phelan, and Williams are all three equally outstanding, with special snaps to Williams’ play-opening monolog that is the essence of invisible acting—so real, so spontaneous, so heartfelt, that to call it “acting” seems a misnomer.

I WANNA HOLD - 2 Completing the cast under McKerrin Kelly’s incisive direction are Judith Ann Levitt and Phil Ward as a pair of aneurysm survivors, the twosome creating indelible portraits of the diverse paths recovery can take, ranging from aphasia-caused vocabulary loss to radical personality change.

Playwright Patterson scores high marks indeed for serving up soap opera/disease-of-the-month TV movie fodder without an ounce of melodrama, for creating one quirky, stereotype-defying character after another, and for resisting the temptation to take expected plot turns.

That being said, I Wanna Hold Your Hand seems more screenplay than play script, constructed as it is as a series of often very short scenes, each of them requiring a set change—from hospital waiting room to living room to Starbucks to bedroom and back. Imagine watching an indie feature film and having to sit in semi-darkness for twenty to thirty seconds between dozens of scenes and you’ll get a sense of how frustratingly choppy I Wanna Hold Your Hand can be on a stage as small as that of Theatre Of NOTE. A Matrix-Macha-Secret Rose-Hudson Backstage-wide playing area could allow most if not all of I Wanna Hold Your Hand’s locales to coexist, thereby reducing breaks to a minimum. The Geffen or South Coast Rep could move set pieces in a jiffy through the magic of high-tech theater mechanics. Theatre Of NOTE can do neither, and Patterson’s play probably runs an unnecessary extra ten minutes simply because of this.

That’s not to say that William Moore Jr.’s scenic design isn’t ingenious. To the contrary, its ingenuity is revealed each time cast members and stage crew move boards, cubes, rectangular cuboids, and other assorted accoutrements into one imaginative configuration after another. Add to that Moore’s inspired integration of one character’s job (the interconnected pipes and cables and wires that lie beneath any metropolis) into his set, the wonders of which don’t become known until I Wanna Hold Your Hand’s breathtaking climax, and you have an indeed inventive scenic design, though not necessarily one to bring out the best in Patterson’s movie-like play.

Other design elements are thoroughly first-rate, from Cricket S. Myer’s edgy urban sound design to Bosco Flanagan’s subtly mood-enhancing lighting to Kara McLeod’s character-perfect costumes to Misty Carlisle’s multitude of props that fill in the blanks in the play’s Starbucks-hospital waiting room-Manhattan apartment settings.

Alexis DeLaRosa, Debbie Jaffe, Jonathon Lamer, Sarah Lilly, Will McFadden, and Nicole Gabriella Scipione are understudies.

I WANNA HOLD - 3 I Wanna Hold Your Hand is produced for NOTE by David Bickford, Phelan, and Jenny Soo. Heidi Marie is stage manager.

Though not the spectacular achievement of He Asked For It, I Wanna Hold Your Hand further enhances Erik Patterson’s status as one of our most original playwrights. Extended blackouts punctuated by a distracting smattering of applause after each and every single one are just about the only minus in Patterson’s often very funny, occasionally quite moving, and always compelling new play.

Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
August 21, 2014
Photos: Ido Bernstein, Heidi Marie, Jacqui Zadik

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