In its short life, Tampa Repertory Theatre has earned a solid reputation by producing substantial and enlightening plays, the kind of plays that shake your emotions and rattle around in your subconscious for months afterward.
Phoenix is not such a play.
Tampa Rep's current show is a slight romantic comedy, formulaic and utterly predictable. The title (which applies in both literal and metaphorical senses) gives the ending away, even if you can't predict it from the first scene.
But it works, and works very well. It melts from your memory moments after you've left the theater, but during its 80-minute life, it's completely delightful, and in its best moments even makes you care about its characters. The reason it works is partly because of the engaging dialogue and moderately appealing characters created by playwright Scott Organ, but mostly because of two very charming performances by Jon Gennari and Georgia Mallory Guy.
They're the play's only two characters, Bruce and Sue. When we meet them, they're getting together for the first time after a one-night stand several weeks prior. Bruce acts like an obsequious puppy, so pleased that Sue has finally called him that he doesn't even notice she's being cold and even a little hostile. Eventually, she tells him she's pregnant, he's the father and she's having an abortion. She doesn't ever want to hear from him again, but she thought he should know.
So, in the first few sentences, the "boy meets girl" and "boy loses girl" parts of the rom-com formula are taken care of. The rest of the play is the final boy-gets-girl part.
The obstacle is Sue, who basically doesn't want the bother of a relationship. But Bruce is persistent, and drives cross-country to Phoenix, where Sue's having the abortion. (Sue is a "traveling nurse" and knows the people at this particular clinic.) Sue's not especially happy he's there, at least at first.
This is no grand love story. There's no passion, only negotiation. They say they "like" each other, never that they "love"each other. Essentially, Sue keeps saying, "Why should we keep seeing each other?" and Bruce says "Why not?" until they reach a mutually acceptable agreement.
The characters are believable enough, but they're both a bit annoying. Bruce is needy and Sue is sometimes horribly mean (which she acknowledges and blames on hormones). But Gennari and Guy are such appealing actors that they involve the audience in Sue and Bruce's dilemma and make us root for the ending that we all know is coming.
Director Connie LaMarca-Frankel keeps the pace brisk. She's also come up with a clever and effective way to handle the many scene changes, which are done by the actors themselves.
The romance is low-key but effective, and that holds true for the comedy part of the equation as well. There are some decent one-liners, but mostly this is the kind of comedy that makes you smile often rather than laugh occasionally.
An abortion obviously isn't a natural plot point for a romantic comedy. But Organ is skillful enough to handle the topic. He avoids making it a topic of debate and treats it as a device to keep the characters involved with each other and as a way to move the action to Phoenix. (That move is actually one of the few clumsy elements of the script. It's too apparent that organ just wanted an excuse to call his play "Phoenix," which he obviously chose as a mythological reference.)
Tampa Rep is billing this as a "regional premiere." It was first produced two years ago at Louisville's prestigious Humana Festival, and had a well-reviewed New York run. A film version is slated for release next year.
Marty Clear is a Tampa freelance writer who specializes in performing arts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.