Theater Review - Fuzzy logic

Hard Feelings dwells in a New York state of mind

Neena Beber’s play Hard Feelings takes place in that part of New York City so populated by neurotics, it might as well be called “Neu York.” Quirks define Hard Feelings’ characters, but the sympathetic ones have afflictions instead of affectations. Kindly Granny Gee (Mary Ellen McCall) suffers from memory loss, while self-absorbed Irene (Lane Carlock) obsesses over the latest physical enhancement trends from botox to boob jobs to lymphatic drainage massage.

Our heroine Selma Rogers (Stacy Melich) has plenty of reason to be anxious. She works as an electrolysist, but laser hair removal is rapidly making her job obsolete. She seeks admittance into a prestigious writing class taught by the imperious Dr. Disposio (John Benzinger). And early on, her girlfriend Finola (Kristi Casey) dumps her. Most challenging of all, Selma strives to get her daughter back from her mother’s custody and embarks on a program of self-improvement.

While clever zingers and contrived zaniness dominate Hard Feelings, Synchronicity Performance Group’s production does justice to how difficult it can be to develop self-confidence when you don’t have any. Silly on the surface, the play shows that becoming a better person is harder than the “believe in yourself” messages of Hollywood movies.

Melich amusingly conveys Selma’s low self-esteem, which gets undermined at every turn. Her chatty client Irene enjoys feeling superior to her. Her ex-girlfriend joins the same writing class just to prove she can out-do her. Dr. Disposio has the demeanor and decibel-level of a drill sergeant. He judges stories solely based on their opening lines: “The first sentence does not hold!” he booms.

Hard Feelings frequently uses sitcom-style devices to exaggerate reality. Selma takes a hypnosis class and attempts to control the minds of others, with mixed results. Her grandmother receives a pair of “magic” bunny slippers that restore her to lucidity every time she puts them on. Like David Lindsay-Abaire’s similarly shticky Wonder of the World (staged by Horizon Theatre this year), the script brings in a handgun and wacky costumes for the climax.

Nick Collins’ color-coded set helps the audience accept the play’s level of cartoonishness. Synchronicity fits several locales in the modest space at 7 Stages Back Stage, but each has its own color, and the costumes match the surroundings. For example, yellow suffuses Selma’s kitchen, and her live-in granny wears a housedress with a yellow sunflower pattern.

At its best, Beber’s writing can be provocative. Selma’s short stories and her grandmother’s memories draw on similar imagery, although the women are touchingly unaware of their mutual influence. Dr. Disposio gets a rare moment of humble reflection and relates the highlights of his life in the form of index entries to his own biography.

But when Beber names a character “Finola Cornflakes,” then has someone comment on how stupid the name is, it feels like she’s cheating to get a laugh. Rachel May’s light-footed direction fits the play’s comic tone but glosses over Beber’s harsh judgment of Selma’s failures as a mother.

Benzinger gives Dr. Disposio the moves of a would-be Valentino as he proves more interested in Finola and Selma’s sex lives than their prose. Benzinger excels at loud, vain roles, and though he can be hammy, he stays so true to his characters that you can’t imagine them played differently. But McCall’s and Casey’s performances feel too self-consciously comic and seldom rise above the stereotypes.

Hard Feelings seems too intent on caricaturing New York personality types to tickle a New York audience. (Dr. Disposio is inspired by notoriously caustic teacher and editor Gordon Lish.) It’s the kind of play that treats Manhattan as the center of the universe, and on that level should appeal to fans of HBO’s “Sex and the City.” But the most deeply felt moments of Hard Feelings look past New York’s skin-deep styles to uncover some universal neuroses.