As national defining traits go, the reputation of Americans for giddy optimism, whistling through the boneyard of existential adversity, is probably better than France’s rep for producing rude waiters. But not by much. Sarah Ruhl’s Melancholy Play, being staged by Brown University Theatre and Sock & Buskin (through November 18), picks up the banner of Serious Sadness and waves it for a while. Sort of.
Actually, the playwright can’t help but notice the opportunity to twirl it like a baton, so very quickly things are funny as well. The end effect, after 90 breathless minutes without intermission, is like an Irish wake that gets so out of hand that it reconvenes in the bar down the street.
Melancholy Play is funny — very funny. But it’s like watching someone arm wrestle with herself. While the melancholia under discussion represents a respectful nod to suffering in the world, it implies a narcissism too ironic for the playwright not to keep breaking up over.
We get a butcher-baker-candlestick-maker cast of diverse characters, to indicate the universality of the state of mind. At the opening we are lectured to by a tailor, Frank (Byron Asher), who presents a brief, impromptu essay. “We are depressed, but are we melancholy?” he asks us. Are we capable of contemplative, lofty, and noble sadness?
Not if we stick around. We next meet a psychiatrist who introduces himself as Lorenzo the Unfeeling, played with heavy Italian accent and giddy brio by Patrick Harrison. Born in the land of the lugubrious, of Antonioni and Fellini, he was orphaned by his mother in a candy store because he was too cheerful — he “smiled like an American.” So eventually he finds himself among these other characters in Illinois, where everyone is similarly limited.
Tilly (Sarah Tolan-Mee), a patient of his, is a beautiful but wistfully sad young woman who’d like to die and be born as a mushroom. He accuses her of keeping her melancholy around like a pet. But he’s attracted by her moodiness, and if he can’t be melancholy himself, he can at least be miserable: with operatic bombast, he confesses his love for her. She flees.
Into the arms of that tailor. Tilly works in a bank because, like Frank, she likes one-on-one contact with people. Being beautiful, “I don’t get in trouble with policemen when I cry,” she admits as he is altering her slacks. Despite having promoted melancholy to us, at first he is reluctant to fall for her. Melancholics, he points out in a lovely metaphor, are not pretty after they remove their gray hats and gray gloves.
There are others attracted to Tilly’s piteous beauty. Her hairdresser, Frances (Phoebe Neidhardt), used to be a physicist but changed careers because she preferred dealing with people rather than their component particles. After some initial reluctance, Frances’s girlfriend Joan (Katherine Cooper), a British nurse, falls under her spell. Throughout the play, a barefoot cello player (Colin Baker) provides an appropriately portentous soundtrack.
But far from making a case for the allure of the sadly soulful, playwright Ruhl from the get-go enjoys making fun of such. A modern-day Sartre slouching behind sunglasses and an espresso wouldn’t survive in Melancholy Play for long. Two characters have a hilarious and carefully choreographedknock-down, drag-out struggle over a vial of Tilly’s tears. When Tilly turns abruptly joyful, like a switch has been thrown or pharmaceuticals have been funneled, and the rest of them start singing a languorous blues in lament, director Ken Prestininzi has Tilly breeze through playing a cheerful fiddle. (That the delightfully talented Tolan-Mee can do so is no surprise to us by then.)
All this is not to say that the actual pain of melancholy is being ridiculed, just that it’s portrayed as a fact of life that we need to snap one another out of. Eventually, one character withdraws so completely into herself that she turns into — take a moment here and fashion your own metaphor — an almond. Elegant, compact, as tight as a tiny fist.