Worn Souls

The archetypal story of Beauty and the Beast has taken many, many forms in practically every culture of the world. The most common of these involves a beautiful woman falling in love with a prince who has been hexed into ugliness. In other forms of the story, the Beast figure may even be beautiful; in the Greek myth of Psyche and Eros, Eros is a winged god. But whatever variation it takes, the story is always about the necessity of seeing through to the inner soul.

The tale's latest permutation, Elisabeth Zambetti's The Number 45, imagines a different ending than the happily-ever-after of the myth--a twist in the tale meant to raise a little consciousness. And Ad Hoc's world-premiere production of this somewhat choppy play is lyrical and warming, graced by three choice performances and excellent direction by Jon Selover.

Every day, the fragile Daniel-Ann waits at a stop for the number 45 bus, which will take her to work or to her therapist's office, where she will try to deal with her rage by counting backward. A sweet-faced young man named Douglas sits at the same stop; he smiles at her but never speaks. One day, out of her vast loneliness, Daniel-Ann speaks to him, telling him about the old lady in the basement apartment beneath her own whose whole life revolves around Daniel-Ann's comings and goings. Then she begs him to consider a relationship with her. And when she finally shuts up long enough for him to speak, his tortured speech makes it instantly clear that he has cerebral palsy. She is shocked but tries to recover herself.

A few days later the young man leaves a poem for her on their bench; reading it, she is transported. They meet every day at the same hour, and he explains that he is on a new medication that minimizes his physical symptoms but takes away his dreams. So Daniel-Ann tells him her dreams, which are nightmares, and he changes them into beautiful poems. We never hear them, but they are clearly meant to heal her wounded heart. The neurotic and miserable Daniel-Ann finds uncommon solace in the poems, even as Douglas falls deeply in love with her.

Meanwhile, Douglas's overprotective big brother tries to run Douglas's life, bullying him mercilessly and pushing him to get his poems published. He's such a jerk that for a while it appears he has become exasperated by the burden of looking out for his brother. But eventually it becomes clear that big brother needs his afflicted sibling, needs to bully and cajole him--and needs to find the meaning of his life through Douglas's art.

Richard Nelson is one of those handsome, wholesome-looking guys who are particularly effective at playing sleazeballs. Always a fascinating presence on stage, he makes the older brother complicated and nasty, worldly and yet vulnerable--utterly self-deceived. Jennifer Gosz does neurosis very well, using her angelic face to delicately mask and slowly reveal a range of grotesque emotions and a few more lovely ones. But best of all is Brian Hill as Douglas. His is a physically challenging role, requiring a change in speech patterns and movement. He must project depth of intelligence, kindness and even surly self-assurance through the mask of affliction--all of which he does.

Jon Selover's direction is almost flawless--except for a very unfortunate moment toward the middle of the play when he has Daniel-Ann do a little dream dance that's reminiscent of a Jules Feiffer cartoon. But that one slight embarrassment aside, Selover's choices are impeccable, his reading of the play calculated to bring out every ounce of its best intentions and its fiery take on an old, old story.

The play itself needs work. Too many short scenes dangle abruptly as if unrelated to the overall text. And despite all Selover can do to minimize the problem, the whole play suffers from agitated "editing." Still, its message is significant enough and its dialogue engaging enough to command respect. The play never for an instant indulges in sentimentality, and it finally reveals something true about human nature and the obsession with "normalcy" that destroys the happiness of so many.--Mason

The Number 45, through June 15 at The Shop, 416 East 20th Avenue, 820-2544.

 
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