By Jenn McKee
Local playwright Joe Zettelmaier obviously has a soft spot for pop culture nerds, as evidenced once again by his newest play, “Salvage,” now having its world premiere at Hamtramck’s Planet Ant Theatre.
Focusing on an economically struggling basement collectibles store owner in Detroit, Jason (Rob Pantano) – whom you could easily imagine trading war stories with the “Star Wars” geeks featured in Zettelmaier’s “All Childish Things” trilogy – “Salvage” is set in motion when a mysterious woman, Anna (Alysia Kolascz), enters Jason’s store with a rare sports memorabilia item to sell.
Anna explains that she found the item among her recently deceased father’s things. Jason offers to find a buyer for her, and as he does, a romantic relationship develops between the two. Soon, after learning about Jason’s financial straits, Anna brings him a trunk of additional collectibles from her father’s house. But what initially appears to be Jason’s salvation ends up being a test of his character.
What catches your eye before “Salvage” even starts – because you essentially walk through Jason’s “store” on your way to a seat – is Inga Wilson and Milan Filipec’s scenic design, filled out by Kirstin Bianchi’s copious props. Packed with pop culture ephemera your eyes can’t quite stop pouring over (a “Dukes of Hazzard” lunchbox, a Betsy Ross lamp, troll dolls, a Darth Vader action figure carrying case, etc.), the set provides a nicely realized version of the store, which is more a nostalgic haven for Jason than it is a business.
Because Jason and Anna are the play’s only characters, and because all that happens between them must necessarily happen over the course of some time, the play consists of many, many scenes and blackouts (though these are often nicely, if loudly, accompanied by appropriate music, selected by sound designer Kate Peckham). The consequence of this is multiple quick costume changes (designed by Bianchi), as well as a general sense of narrative choppiness/stiltedness.
All of which contributes, unfortunately, to a sense of distance between the audience and the characters. With Anna, this is not as much of a tragedy, since we’re finding out about her, as Jason is, little by little. (Yet when you do learn critical information about her, you inevitably question the sense of her actions, manner and words leading up to that point.) Jason, meanwhile, is really the linchpin of the piece – the character we necessarily need to connect to, empathize with, and root for. And it’s difficult to do just that when, other than a couple of anecdotes about his early childhood, and some scant details about the nature of his relationship with his few friends and his brother, we never quite get a bead on him.
For this reason, Anna and Jason’s relationship feels rather contrived, as do the events that unfold because of the trunk – that is, you know things can’t be as good or as easy as they initially seem, because this is a play, darn it, and we’ve got another act to go. Plus, when the final twist comes, it feels less powerful than it intends to be, both because you’ll probably see it coming from a mile away, and because it ultimately feels unearned.
Even so, Kolasz and Pantano provide solid performances, and Wilson directs the show with polish and sensitivity. But if “Salvage” is to ever reach its full potential, there has to be more to it than a somewhat bland geek’s brush with romance and riches.
Planet Ant Theatre, 2357 Caniff, Hamtramck. Friday-Sunday through May 14, plus Tuesday, May 3. $20. 313-365-4948. http://www.planetant.com