Friday, September 21, 2018
Stage

Heather Theatre handles ‘Baggage,’ a romantic comedy, with a light touch

TAMPA — It’s an absurd premise that could almost happen.

Two airline passengers get identical bags mixed up after a flight. They track each other down, and wouldn’t you know it, each is single and carrying fresh emotional scars. So begins Baggage, a comedy by Sam Bobrick, a television writer whose credits include Bewitched, the The Andy Griffith Show and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. If that resume seemed dated, it also connotes a sure hand. This script entertains by staying a half-step ahead of predictable, and by maintaining a light edge that stops short of frothy. I took in a dress rehearsal — the show opens Friday — which conveyed promise.

This couple doesn’t belong together, and at first show no signs of attraction. Bradley Naughton (Seth Goodfellow), a lawyer for the Internal Revenue Service, looks for grievances, starting with the bag his new acquaintance via chance encounter has filled with paperweights, which he manages to drag into her home.

Phyllis Novak (Margaret Murphy), who owns a calmer disposition, is a book editor who has "an amazing and overwhelming need to see how things end." As they compare notes in the living room, she reveals that she has perused a photo album from his wedding. It’s the opening salvo of one of the play’s funniest periods.

Director Ricky Wayne keeps the tensions sharpened and moving toward an outcome you might have seen coming. It doesn’t matter; Baggage is the kind of plot that would only be upsetting if it didn’t turn out with an eventual union.

That doesn’t mean the show lacks surprises. A psychologist, Dr. Jonathan Alexander, introduces himself midway through. He addresses the audience directly, an extension of his ambition to sell books. And layered in between comes Mitzi Cartwright, Phyllis’ friend who serves to complicate the romantic story line.

The Heather Theatre doubles as an acting school, which produces most of the players in its casts. The school founded by casting agent Kathy Laughlin and artistic director Ward Smith emphasizes a natural style embodied in the books of Eric Morris, a board member, starting with No Acting Please. It’s an approach that works particularly well in its intimate space, which holds a couple dozen seats at most.

Murphy is the most well-traveled of this foursome along that road. She sprinkles attitudes with a glance or a wave of her hand. Her vulnerability convinces, even as Goodfellow does his best to make his nervous wreck of a character annoying and ultimately endearing. He’s a romantic lead who cries a lot, goes through her box of tissues reminiscing about the wife who left him, yet finds small flaws in others.

"I don’t like you much at all," he says early on, a hint at the gulf that must be crossed by the show’s end.

Tarik Lewis, who plays Dr. Alexander, is a stand-up comedian making an acting debut at the Heather. His acting is a little rough around the edges, but he nails the comic ingredient, namely that in this world of neuroses, the psychologist is the only truly disturbed character. Aniria Turney, as Mitzi, is also a comic. Her low-key approach borders on the laconic but gets the job done.

There’s a key moment later on when Bradley drops a bombshell that ought to shake up the entire play. It’s supposed to be a heartbreaker and didn’t come off that way. (There is such a thing as avoiding overacting to a fault.)

Nonetheless, this is a pleasant show, a romantic comedy that still says something about the way we live and interact. As Phyllis opines, "We are desperate people."

And sometimes laughter helps.

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.
Follow @torch437.

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