The legend of the man on the flying lawn chair sounds like an urban myth, but it just happens to be true. In 1982, an ordinary working guy named Larry Walters, obsessed with fantasies of flight, tied helium balloons to a lawn chair, equipped himself with filled water bottles for ballast, beer and sandwiches, and a pellet gun to deflate the balloons as needed for descent. Expecting to float perhaps thirty feet into the air, Walters instead ascended 16,000 feet at breathtaking speed. It's an odd hybrid of a story that's hard to pigeonhole — both a metaphor for human longing and aspiration and, at the same time, comically absurd: Walters made the Darwin Awards, which are given annually for "the improvement of the human genome by honoring those who accidentally remove themselves from it," though he didn't actually die until some ten years later, when he committed suicide. In Up, playwright Bridget Carpenter has chosen to deal with the aftermath of Walters's adventure, stressing the dreariness and smallness of everyday life as her hero, here named Walter Griffin, refuses to get a job and fights to keep his dream of invention alive, while his son, Mikey, flounders in high school, and Helen, his wife, supports the family through the trudging work of a mail carrier.
The script balances up with down, triumphs and pleasures tending to cluster in the first act, disasters in the second. The famed tightrope walk of Philippe Petit between the Twin Towers serves as a metaphoric link, and Petit periodically appears, walking a light-illuminated simulated tightrope above the stage, to encourage Griffin in his dreams of flight. (Petit is essentially a benign abstract force here, part mime, part magical godfather, though the real Petit is as focused, disciplined and meticulously organized as Griffin is dreamy and out of it.) Mikey, too, finds his life taking flight with the appearance at his school of the pregnant teenage Maria. Maria's aunt puts the unwitting boy to work in a telephone sales scam she runs, he accumulates a large sum of money — or thinks he does — and falls in love with Maria, offering to support both her and the baby. In the second act comes the crash. Helen realizes that Griffin has bankrupted the family, and Mikey comes to understand just how fully Aunt Chris has betrayed him.
Despite some interesting interweaving of themes, almost everything in the script is deployed too narrowly in the service of the central idea, which means the characters never come alive or really surprise you. Griffin is an annoying shlub throughout — even his rapturous description of those magical moments when he broke free of all constraint and soared aren't full-throated and lyrical enough to carry you with him. Helen sounds one primary note throughout: Her husband has to get a job. Yes, she also evinces concern for her son and does a bit of rhapsodizing of her own about a particularly pleasant mail route, but it's hard to believe that big, expensive houses on nice grounds are that inspiring to mail carriers. We've seen tough-tender waifs like Maria before, and Mikey is just a walking bundle of standard-issue movie and television teen impulses. And there are credulity-straining bits that make you wonder just how deeply the playwright imagined her people: Why did Helen find herself walking so many long driveways? Didn't the mailboxes face the street? Why does Maria appear to feel the baby kick for the first time when she's already six months pregnant? Most problematic: I simply couldn't figure out in even the sketchiest form how Aunt Chris's phone scam worked. She had Mikey call people all over the country claiming to sell office supplies, but did she actually furnish those supplies (in which case she wouldn't have had to bolt) or just wangle credit-card numbers? The tech is superb — breathtaking skies, a glorious parachute unfurling — and director Chip Walton has assembled some of Denver's most exciting actors for this Curious Theatre production. But the performances are sometimes as problematic as the script. The supposedly everyday talk in the Griffin household is too high-pitched and frenetic, and the crescendo of yelling as the play approaches its climax is just plain off-putting. I found myself pretty much unmoved — with the exception of one brief moment when Misha Johnson, as Maria, allows Mikey to feel her hard stomach, her expression beatific.