By D. A. Blackburn
We tend to associate the Department of Motor Vehicles with simple aggravations, not love connections, but in Don Gordon’s “Panache,” inconvenience and romance intersect in a collision of surprisingly rich characters.
The Williamston Theatre’s sharp new production of the play, which opened to a packed house Friday night, catches all the lights green and delivers some of the most endearing theater of the season.
Though it’s fueled by a seductive romantic tension, Gordon’s script is much more than just a simple boy-meets-girl romantic comedy. It is, foremost, a story about rediscovering passion, overcoming loss and breaking the molds that encapsulate our lives–but it all begins with a simple license plate.
Kathleen Trafalger (Sarab Kamoo) is trying to find the perfect gift for her less-than-doting husband. Remembering the most passionate night of their short marriage, she decides that he is a man of real panache, and the perfect surprise would be a vanity license plate declaring it for all the world to see.
But the D. M. V. mixes up her request, providing a plate that reads “pancake,” and “panache,” it turns out, is already assigned. In a fury of uncharacteristic tenacity, Mrs. Trafalger uses her significant means to track down the plate’s rightful owner, Harry Baldwin (Alex Leydenfrost), a slovenly, broken man, who she believes lacks the flair to own such a plate. The experience shakes both to the core.
While the script has received mixed reactions critically since debuting in 2000, the Williamston has taken much care to craft an engaging, charming interpretation of the work. Stage director Suzi Regan has done more than merely direct traffic in this production. Her playful, inventive blocking is fun-to-watch – but she also gets the serious moments right, making it easy to buy into even the flimsiest assertions of Gordon’s script. Yes, it’s wholly unlikely that a wealthy maven of society would take it upon herself to deal with the D. M. V., or visit, befriend and fall in love with a lowly, frequently drunken artist in a sleazy New York neighborhood, but this production makes us want to believe that it’s possible.
Regan, however, is not the only shining star here. Kamoo (a four-time Wilde Award nominee) has a chameleon-like ability to blend into a character, and this talent is on full display in “Panache.” Leydenfrost, who makes his Michigan debut in the production, is every bit her equal in this realm, and both bring complex, tormented-but-charming characters to life with a vivid emotional clarity. And even in grappling with the weight of their characters’ baggage, both show true poise with Gordon’s clever dialogue and humor.
In smaller peripheral roles, Keith Kalinowski, Matt Hollerbach and Maggie Meyer are all superb.
Williamston’s production staff has also put much work into getting the little details right, and it pays dividends in their roundly satisfying technical, scenic and costume designs.
In every aspect, Williamston Theatre’s “Panache” has panache, and that’s precisely why it should bear the vanity plate XLNTSHO.
Williamston Theatre, 122 S. Putnam Rd., Williamston. Thursday-Sunday through April 19. $18-$24. 517-655-7469. http://www.williamstontheatre.org