By Carolyn Hayes
On paper, playwright Scott Organ’s “Phoenix” is a sleek little nugget of a play. The plot encompasses just two characters; their story takes scarcely more than an hour to tell, or a few sentences to sum up. The script is a sharp character study, a self-contained relationship exercise – on paper. However, the Michigan premiere production that closes Matrix Theatre Company’s season leaps splendidly off the page: Director Stephanie Nichols adds to this intriguing text compelling performances and abstract theatrical design, then compresses this fertile ore into a show with diamond shine.
As the play begins, Bruce (Samer Ajluni) meets Sue (Tricia Turek) at a coffee shop, at her behest. He never expected to hear from her again after their one-night stand, which they discuss amicably. Then, he can’t believe she went to all this trouble just to tell him she can never see him again. But that’s not the true reason for this reunion – actually, Sue felt duty bound to inform Bruce that his claims of infertility were…misguided. Ahem. A few minutes of comically inept implication later, the two at least have their facts straight, but are far from understanding each other.
As cautioned by the theater, the duo’s frank discussions cover adult subject matter – chief among them abortion, and the obligations and responsibilities that surround it – and contain some strong language. However, the play is far from a whose-baby-is-it-anyway diatribe of contentious moral land mines: Sue knows what her choice is and wants to get the procedure over with, and Bruce wants to be present and supportive. Thus begins a truly unique journey that leads both characters from New York City all the way to Phoenix, Arizona, preemptively blighting their history while somehow also raising genuine optimism for their future.
Yet even spread out across a handful of locales in these disparate cities, the play is consciously self-reflective, oblivious to the outside world, all lean and no fat. Nearly every point divulged is – or becomes – pertinent to the relationship at hand. The notion is reinforced by a conceptual design scheme that evades realism, with designer Adam Crinson’s essentials-only set and properties anchored by a geometric delight of a modernist de Stijl backdrop. This sparsely painted wooden monolith doesn’t merely fill the black-box Matrix stage, it defines it, in a mammoth achievement of proportion and scale. The show’s breezy but driving pace is also served by Jarrett Thomas’ lighting design and its clipped cues, as well as Cal Schwartz’s costumes, with key pieces anchoring the characters’ personal style and speeding changes. In these moments when the scenery is efficiently overhauled, Andrea Scobie’s primarily instrumental sound design is busy playing against type: The more frenzied the scene, the more lethargic the music. Combined, the design efforts help facilitate a theatrical experience that keeps the viewer plugged in and fully charged.
Simultaneously, Nichols and the cast are going above and beyond to secure the audience’s buy-in and allegiance, showcasing the performers’ impeccably timed comic skills while also coating each beat with subtle gestures and expressions that come across like gangbusters in this intimate venue. From Turek’s edgy stand-offish affect to her sardonic defeatism, from Ajluni’s charming yarn spinning to a moment of woefully misplaced desperation, the two are doing stellar work alone and together. Even when Sue and Bruce admit they hardly know each other, there are undercurrents and sparks that allow the audience to get invested, reveling in closeness and getting socked by pain. It takes a well-written script to perpetuate such a complex evolution, but there’s no doubt that the direction and performances here are further elevating the writing.
In cataloging a relationship that begins at a deficit and takes further blows in step with its cautious advances, it is truly an achievement that this “Phoenix” wells up with hopefulness as much as laughter. The possibility of revival is emblazoned in the mythical origins of the show’s title, and the emphatic empathy of this breathless production effectively captures the intrigue and anticipation of such a chance.
Matrix Theatre Company, 2730 Bagley, Detroit. Friday-Sunday through March 24. 75 minutes; no intermission. $20. 313-967-0999. http://www.matrixtheatre.org