ST. PETERSBURG — There's something about the British slang term describing a guy as a "wanker" — generally speaking, a loser — that is hilarious, especially when delivered in a rough Scottish burr.
Ian, a songwriter and guitarist, is the object of this put-down, made more than a few times by his musical partner and girlfriend, Monica, in Rooms: A Rock Romance. The scaled-down musical about "two young punks in love" is the first show of the season by freeFall Theatre at the Studio@620.
Ian and Monica, played by Graham Fenton and Nicole Kaplan, are from Glasgow, where she hires him to write music for her lyrics to a bat mitzvah song. She's desperate to get out of her backwater hometown, and relishes the ride when a hit song, All I Want Is Everything, whisks them off to London, then New York. He's more of a homebody, who's quite happy writing music for himself in his room, taking slugs of whiskey from a flask. Rooms is plainly an autobiographical show by Paul Scott Goodman (music, lyrics, book) and his wife, Miriam Gordon (book). Goodman grew up Jewish in Glasgow and moved in the 1980s to New York, where he met and married Gordon. He has said that the character Monica is based on himself.
Goodman wrote another rock musical, Brights Lights, Big City, from the Jay McInerney novel, but it flopped in a 1999 production I saw in New York that starred St. Petersburg native Patrick Wilson. Rooms is a better work, benefiting from the tight two-person focus and intelligent lyrics that can be tender and expressive in a ballad like Friday Night Dress to laugh-out-loud funny in Scottish Jewish Princess. The Scottish and Jewish angles work well within the context of the early days of punk rock in giving the show a pungent, idiosyncratic sense of time and place.
Fenton and Kaplan — husband and wife in real life — are an attractive pair. Kaplan has the spunky flair of a consummate musical theater belter, but she can rock, too, though her voice got screechy at times in Friday's performance. Fenton, a more polished singer (he played Frankie Valli in the national tour of Jersey Boys), was drenched in sweat by the end of the show. He has some heavy emotional lifting in the soliloquy, Clean ("Hi, my name is Ian/I'm an alcoholic").
One of the pleasures of Rooms is the five-piece band, led by Matt Hinkley. Positioned in an alcove by a front window, they do a great job on Goodman's music, which is richly layered, like a chamber music approach to rock.
Director Eric Davis has used what he calls "avenue" staging for the show. Sets of Ian's and Monica's bedrooms are at each end of the space, connected by a long, narrow playing area, flanked by the audience seated on risers. The arrangement provides a nice sense of intimacy, as you watch the people across from you react to the performance.
Rooms is a savvy piece of drama, and with its punchy score and star-crossed lovers, it's also the sort of show that might appeal to people who wouldn't know Ibsen from Bono or Tennessee Williams from Green Day. It's one night at the theater that feels like going to a club.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.