Rising at the crack of dawn to gaze up at our fine feathered friends in the sky is to Roger, the 40something protagonist of Julie Marie Myatt’s quietly compelling Birder, what a flashy new sports car or extramarital fling is to other men his age, a way of dealing with a pesky case of midlife crisis.

We first meet the fourth-wall-breaking Roger (Chet Grissom) in Mr. Mom mode as his fashionably dressed wife Joyce (Laurie Okin) heads off for a day at the office leaving her bird-watching house hubby to care for their two pre-teen sons.

Birder then flashes back to “Two Years Ago” when the couple’s marital duties were more traditionally split, though Roger’s distressing disinterest in performing the chief among them hints, to Joyce’s sexually frustrated dismay, that all may not be as it should in suburbia.

BIRDER-4 Roger’s flirtatiousness with Rebecca (Monique Marie Gelineau), the 20something daughter of fellow birder Charles (Webster Williams), may indeed be as innocent as our married hero maintains, but it too suggests a man whose life hasn’t turned out quite the way he imagined it would when he and Joyce first tied the knot.

Completing Birder’s cast of characters is Rebecca’s hunky go-getter of a boyfriend Todd (Crash Buist), who not so surprisingly ranks low on Roger’s list of favorite people with whom to go birding.

tn-500_40a3c06d-7891-45de-8369-1a8470d92596 Playwright Myatt takes her deliberate time in revealing just where Birder is heading, letting us get to know and (sort of) like Roger, though trust me, if ever a man deserved one of Cher’s “Snap out of it!” slaps, by the time intermission has arrived, you’ll likely agree with me that Roger is that man.

Though neither quite the comedy nor the tearjerker that was Myatt’s extraordinary 2009 dramedy The Happy Ones, the Chicago-based scribe’s latest continues to reveal her gifts for finding both humor and humanity in life’s darker places.

As Roger confronts a series of crises, both major and minor (including the one that brought about his and Joyce’s role reversal), Birder weaves its subtle spell, sound designer David B. Marling adding magic to the equation with as impressive a collection of chirps and cheeps and trills and tweets as you’ve likely ever heard outside nature.

tn-500_c83c73fd-cde7-41d6-9f4b-32e46c875948 Under Dan Bonnell’s nuanced direction, an all-around terrific cast give Birder the kind of Grade-A World Premiere production that has become a Road Theatre hallmark under L.A.’s endangered 99-seat plan.

Grissom’s lovely, multilayered Roger anchors Birder, alternately sweet and cranky and amiable and borderline obnoxious but always undeniably human.

13310475_10154136790996768_3706985072145913795_n The subtly sensational Okin is effortlessly natural as Joyce. (Marvel, for example, at how she accomplishes the acting challenge of actually listening to the “voice” on the other end of the line.)

Williams makes for a splendid comedic/dramatic foil from his initial vain attempts to shush Roger into silence on their morning bird walks to the sympathetic ear he later lends his troubled friend.

Recent Cal State Fullerton grad Gelineau lights up the stage as the tenderhearted Rebecca, Houston-to-L.A. transplant Buist exudes football quarterback sex appeal as the goal-oriented Todd, and both reveal first-rate acting chops auguring big things ahead on stage and screen.

13254287_10154136791021768_3729255450762610589_n Scenic designer Tom Buderwitz’s artfully stacked neutrally-hued boxes and Tom Ontiveros’s equally fine projections take us from interior locales to the woodsy outdoors, Ontiveros’s lighting scoring equally high design marks along the way. Marling’s expert sound design, in addition to the aforementioned bird effects, makes us believe that pre-recorded child actors Charlie Schenk and Kekoa Pastron are actually standing offstage shouting back at Mom and Dad. Michèle Young’s character-appropriate costumes are terrific too.

Birder is produced by Donna Simone Johnson and Ann Hearn. James Holloway is assistant director. Justin Humphres is assistant sound designer. Maurie Gonzalez is stage manager.

Following the edgy urban grit of Broken Fences and Homefree, the Road Theatre’s latest reveals the company in quieter, gentler, but no less effective mode. Birder may take its time in getting where it’s going, but once its destination has been reached, the journey has proven a rewarding one.

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The Road Theatre, 5108 Lankershim Bl., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
May 27, 2016
Photos: Michèle Young

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