Surely, Lucky Me, the title of Robert Caisley's comedy now receiving its world premiere as New Jersey Repertory's 103rd production, is meant to be ironic, for the title character has got to be the unluckiest person in the world. The forty-something woman lives with her blind, controlling, probably demented father Leo in an apartment where the lights fail continually, her pets die with regularity, everything she attempts to cook catches fire, her kitchen window is repeatedly broken by missiles thrown by the kid across the street, and her roof springs recurring leaks that drip water into pots strategically placed around the living room.
Unlucky enough for you? Well, despite these ominous signals—not to mention dire warnings given by Yuri, the building's Ukrainian super—new neighbor Tom doggedly pursues Sara in what appears to be a doomed relationship. The two meet cute, his having picked her up after she fell from the roof on New Year's Eve. A divorced TSA officer recently transferred to Denver from Juneau, Alaska, he is quite taken with this hapless woman, even refusing to be scared off by her irascible, overbearing bear of a dad. Caisley spends the better part of two hours getting these two together, peeling away the layers of secrets so slowly that by the time the payoff comes in the penultimate scene, we are exhausted.
SuzAnne Barabas has directed this rather long play with a firm hand, but the overwritten material does her in. I found myself looking at my watch several times. Once again, Michael Irvin Pollard gives a tour de force performance as Tom, his earnest niceness so charming that we fall in love with him much sooner than does Sara. He’s the type of any man any father would want his daughter to date. Too, he's steadfast in the face of a very insulting Leo (who keeps calling him Brad) and Yuri's mysterious admonitions that he back off lest something bad happen to him. Indeed, when he and Sara finally do go out on a date, Tom dislocates his shoulder and incurs a head injury from an out-of-control child golfer. A lesser man would give up upon first meeting Leo, but Tom hangs in there.
The object of his affection, Sara, is portrayed by Wendy Peace as a cagey weirdo; she won't answer any personal questions and blithely blows off the mishaps that come in droves. She has a cabinet full of light bulbs and a collection of hockey pucks, baseballs and footballs, but never seems the least bit ruffled by her bad luck. She has no obvious means of financial support, and she never leaves the house, except to go to the hospital for treatment from some calamity. She acquiesces to her blustering father's every childish whim. In fact, I thought she was agoraphobic for much of the play, so I found the real reason behind her behavior to be convoluted and kind of anticlimactic. Peace conveys Sara's fey attitude and the character’s maddening behavior very well.
Everyone's nemesis, Leo, is played by Dan Grimaldi with appropriate gruffness and intransigence, albeit at full volume. His very loud delivery shook the rafters of the tiny 60-odd seat theater and overpowered mild-mannered Tom and submissive Sara. The showdown between the two men was an event devoutly wished for by the audience (finally, someone takes on the old blowhard) and a sight to behold, with Pollard's Tom finally losing his cool and laying it all on the line. It was hard to drum up sympathy for Leo, even when we find out the reason for his anger.
And Mark Light-Orr's Yuri provides extra humor as he warns Tom against pursuing Sara. He himself has tried it, so he knows what's ahead for her new beau. He has very funny bits about the bathroom and cookies that provide comic relief.
Jessica Parks has designed a small living room-kitchen combo upon which the plot unfolds; the vinyl furniture covers are a nice touch for this accident-prone woman. Jill Nagle's lighting is important, for the lights go out or flicker at important moments; the thunderstorm (with sound by Merek Royce Press) is very convincing too. Press's choice of music between acts is also appropriate; before the lights come up, "I'm Looking Over a Four-leaf Clover" kind of prepares the audience for what lies ahead. Patricia E. Doherty's costumes work well to delineate character.
Billed by New Jersey Rep as a "whimsical, romantic comedy," Lucky Me has more serious underpinnings. This is not necessarily a bad thing, for there is nothing really light about the heart of this play to make it a bit of fluff. Guilt for failures one may not have caused plague Sara and her dad and cripple their relationship, leaving each to be held hostage by the other. Both are lucky that Tom comes into their lives, for perhaps their relationship will now find a healthy footing.
Unfortunately, it takes a long time for playwright Caisley to get to that point.Lucky Me has some nice writing and character development, but it could use judicious editing and tightening up to make it a solid success. As it stands, the whimsy it is described as having just lies there, unused.
Luck Me will be performed at New Jersey Repertory, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, through August 31. Tickets may be purchased by calling 732.229.3166 or online at www.njrep.org.