Volume 20, Number 29 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Nov. 30 - Dec. 6, 2007

This article is brought to you in part by CHAMBER MUSIC SOCIETY

Lindsey Buller

Playwright Kristin Palmer spun “Local Story,” now at Tribeca’s Access Theater.

A far-flung tale that hits close to home


There was a moment during a preview performance of Kristen Palmer’s new play “Local Story” that I will never forget. Two characters were pinning wet laundry to a clothesline strung across the stage, and they nearly pulled the set down on top of them. An audible gasp arose from the audience as the stage right wall fluttered precariously. Moments later, a young woman in the audience calmly got up from her chair and held the wall steady for the balance of the scene. Problem solved, cheap and cheerful.

On any given night of the week, there are dozens of small theater companies around the city staging inventive live theater that is worth checking out — particularly as we enter week three of the stagehand strike. No, they don’t have Broadway budgets. And yes, sometimes things go wrong.

But there’s plenty that goes right in “Local Story,” playwright Kristen Palmer’s sharply engaging new drama at the Access Theater. At first glance the production seems like little more than an angst-filled soap opera, with a parade of pretty twentysomethings enmeshed in interconnected hook-ups. But just when you consider dismissing the whole enterprise as fluff, a character breaks into dialogue so poetic, so fraught with cosmic portent, you feel as if you have stumbled upon an episode of “Days of Our Lives” written by Tennessee Williams.

And what a seriously sudsy soap opera “Local Story” is. Bubba is in love with a sexy seductress mysteriously known as D’Lady. Roy is too, even though he’s married to Bubba’s sister. Bubba’s buddy Jimmy split town with D’Lady awhile back, but now he’s in love with crazy Betsy. Jimmy gets Betsy pregnant and Roy’s wife wants the baby. But D’Lady is determined to do her best to prevent that from happening. Dun dun dun! And now a word from Mop & Glo.

As soapy as the storyline may sound, there are some deceptively deep issues at the core of “Local Story.” D’Lady, the callous heart breaker played by the husky-voiced Sarah Kate Jackson, is the one local that left Nowheresville USA. But something has pulled her back. She is haunted by the past, as are so many other players in this intersecting, psychological melodrama.

The most haunted of the bunch is Keira Keeley’s Betsy, a wispy willow of a woman who spends the entire show flitting around in her slip. Keeley — who suggests a more pretty, less annoying Juliette Lewis — doesn’t just play her part; she absorbs it into her physicality. Her heartbreaking facial expressions, spastic skipping and lilting voice elevate a beautifully written role to a level of transcendence that lingers after the lights have been extinguished.

Another standout is Marielle Heller as Gloria, the stalwart voice of reason amongst the local madness. Heller plays the emotional touchstone role with a perfectly metered sense of compassion and calm. The action is staged at a brisk pace by director Susanna L. Harris, who some how manages to pack three different houses, a highway and an old dock into one compact — if not entirely sturdy —set.

“Local Story” works perfectly well as a stage drama, but I’d love to see Palmer develop it into a screenplay. The whole time I was sitting in the audience at the Access Theater I was thinking back to a decade or so ago, when every weekend seemed to bring a new indie film with a comely cast of characters enmeshed in the tangled web of love. Think Ethan Hawke, Parker Posey, Ed Burns, Catherine Keener and, in the Juliette Lewis role, Keira Keeley — making perfect sense of poetry like, “I washed the sheets and I looked at the stars and I knew I’d see you again.”

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