Square Product Theatre founder Emily K. Harrison focuses on innovative work that keeps audiences talking and guessing — and perhaps feeling just a touch unbalanced by the end. She discovered Amelia Roper, an interesting young Australian playwright currently living in the States and writing for the Yale Repertory Theatre, among other venues; now Square Product is presenting the regional premiere of Roper’s acerbic, wonderfully titled one-act comedy She Rode Horses Like the Stock Exchange , at the Dairy Arts Center.
A couple sits on a pink-and-white-striped blanket on a patch of artificial turf representing a well-groomed New England park: banker Amy, played by Harrison herself, and her partner, Henry (Jihad Milhem), a nurse. As the play opens, she straightens the fringe on the edge of their blanket. Her shoes are pink. So are his trousers. And when he returns with a cone, having visited the ice cream truck, the scoop is strawberry. Both members of this mismatched couple are trying to do whatever bucolic thing they feel couples should do in parks, but as he keeps an eye out for dogs, which he enjoys watching, she talks about the new home she’s just bought and the large, expensive artifacts she’d like to see furnishing it. Henry, perhaps wanting to be more manly, muses about hardware stores and tools. The year is 2007, and the housing crisis is coming to a head; worldwide recession looms.
A second couple enters, looking even more uncomfortably out of place than Amy and Henry: Max (Andrew Horsford) is in a suit and carrying a standing lamp; Sara (Michelle Moore) wears an elegant black dress and holds several shopping bags. Max is a rival and onetime colleague of Amy’s. Wealthy, privileged Sara is the one who once rode horses, and it was her magnificence on horseback that drew Max to her. The atmosphere is tense as Max and Sara plump themselves down on the pink-and-white blanket uninvited, and Sara offers crackers and foie gras.
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What happens in this ninety-minute play is primarily talk — precise and specific, absurdist, occasionally tantalizingly evocative, occasionally a cover for things unsaid. And there are also evasions and vibrating silences. None of the characters is particularly sympathetic, but every so often a hint of humanity peeks through — sometimes created by the script, sometimes by the uniformly strong performances. Calculating Amy is the least human of the quartet, and Harrison gives her an effective, thin-lipped authority. When Max — a sexist male and no angel himself — warns Henry that Amy is dishonest, in fact outright terrifying, you believe him. Milhem’s Henry is a rather sweet dope. You can see him as a nurse, though not a competent one. Oddly, Max and rich, spoiled Sara are in some ways the more likable members of the quartet. As played by Moore — and also as scripted — Sara has an anarchic, adventurous streak. You feel some warmth in Horsford’s blustery, bumbling Max, too, and you can see why he’d never be a match for whip-smart Amy.
There is something missing here, however. Certain images and themes repeat, and they seem intended to be significant — Henry's longing to build and construct; both Amy and Max admitting that they sometimes wake in the morning filled with feelings of sadness and embarrassment; there are mentions of dead children — but none of these themes cohere or are developed. Henry’s profession as a nurse might be intended as a foil to the greed of the others, but nothing he says indicates a desire to nurture. Still, this is still a smart, funny and entertaining production, and it’ll be interesting to see what Roper writes next.
She Rode Horses Like the Stock Exchange, presented by Square Product Theatre through May 13 at Dairy Arts Center; tickets are $24 general admission, $18 seniors, $15 students. On Monday, May 1, all tickets are $15; on May 3 and May 4, general admission tickets are two-for-one. For more information, call 303-351-2382 or go to squareproducttheatre.org.