Questions of “What if…” haunt the memories of the trio of 30somethings who propel Anna Ziegler’s A Delicate Ship, the latest dramatic sensation from North Hollywood’s Road Theatre Company and a play that will stick with you long after its final fade to black.

 Sarah (Paris Perrault) and Sam (Philip Orazio) have been dating for the past several months when who should show up on Sarah’s doorstep this snowy Manhattan Christmas Eve but Nate (Josh Zuckerman), her best friend since childhood, back in the city after nearly a year’s absence.

“What if we just hadn’t opened that door?” Sarah wonders in one of A Delicate Ship’s frequent fourth-wall-breaking asides, but open the door she does, and in walks trouble.

It becomes immediately, painfully clear that whatever Sarah’s past with Nate and whatever her present with Sam, she has kept each man a secret from the other, so introductions get made, Nate to singer-slash-philosopher-slash-legal-secretary Sam and Sam to third-grade teacher Nate, who grew up in apartment 6A, one floor above her family’s 5A. (“We had the same bedroom. Every night I slept on top of her.”) And if Nate has chosen Christmas Eve to “be in the neighborhood,” it is, he informs Sam, to carry on a lifelong tradition of “meeting in the stairwell, smoking a joint, and gossiping like old hens about everything.”

Not surprisingly, the childhood besties’ shared memories and inside jokes leave Sam painfully, embarrassingly out of the loop, though he hides his insecurity with philosophical interjections. (“You know, Kierkegaard says that loneliness makes us poets.”)

 Nate, in contrast, masks his discomfort with thinly veiled insults fueled by steadily imbibed glasses of white wine and tokes from the vape pen he’s brought along to share.

Talk about a Christmas Eve headed for disaster, though for how many of the three, only playwright Ziegler knows for sure, an uncertainty guaranteed to keep audiences guessing as Nate does his best to manipulate, Sam does his best to keep his cool, and Sarah does her best to avoid taking sides.

 With Ziegler riding high these days (Nicole Kidman took Photograph 51, a 2009 Fountain Theatre hit, to London’s West End a couple years back, Actually played the Geffen last year, and Boy just opened in Chicago), the timing could not be more propitious for A Delicate Ship to arrive in L.A., once again demonstrating the New York playwright’s talent for smart, lyrical dialog spoken by complex, deeply human characters facing situations likely to strike audience chords.

Andre Barron directs the 2015 off-Broadway hit’s West Coast Premiere with equal parts emotional nuance and visual flair, eliciting all-around superb performances from a pitch-perfect cast.

 Zuckerman positively dazzles, his Nate proving himself a master of passive-aggressive manipulation (and then simply of aggression), using his and Sarah’s shared memories both as weapons against Sam and as tools to win Sarah back and breaking our hearts in the process.

 Perrault gives Sarah equal parts girl-next-door appeal and emotional depth, revealing as much with her eyes as with her words while maintaining our sympathy even when Sarah is at her most frustratingly indecisive.

Orazio’s reactions (frustration, anger, confusion) as Sam attempts to piece together Sarah and Nate past relationship and the reasons behind the latter’s sudden appearance this Christmas Eve command attention throughout, and his expert guitar strumming (snaps to composer Matt Schatz) and vocals convince us of Sam’s future music biz success.

 Sarah B. Brown’s stylishly furnished New York apartment set (along with Christine Joëlle’s just-right props and to Michèle Young’s character-appropriate costumes) is lit with both delicacy and impact by Jared A. Sayeg as projection designer Nick Santiago’s New York skyline backdrop reflects both present reality and past memories, sound designer Cricket S. Myers underscores with a subtle mix of Matt Schatz’s original music and her own effects, and fight director Björn Johnson steps in effectively when push comes to shove.

A Delicate Ship is produced by Brian M. Cole and Makena Metz. Jacob Smith is assistant director. Maurie Gonzalez is stage manager. Allison Blaize, Hunter Garner, and Stephen Tyler Howell are understudies.

A Delicate Ship grabbed me straight away and never let go. It moved me, it touched me, it broke my heart. What more can a reviewer wish for?

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The Road Theatre, NoHo Senior Arts Colony, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Through March 24. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 2:00. Reservations: 818 761-8838

–Steven Stanley
January 21, 2018
Photos: Brian M. Cole



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