Shortly after bidding adieu to his bustling wife, a Malibu writer settles into a porch chair and begins his work. Seated at one side of a sparely appointed stage, the wiry figure peers at the audience with a gaze that both acknowledges our presence and enlists our imaginations. He rises and ambles to center stage; as he speaks, the setting's austere, grayish walls flood with projected images of an idyllic sky that, almost as quickly, gracefully surrender to a colder, more rugged-looking photograph of Boulder's Flatirons.
A moment later, a young man steps through a large picture frame located at the back wall of the Ricketson Theatre and, hugging his baseball mitt in the wintry chill, joins the writer at the edge of the stage. The furtive teenager, who, we learn, is the writer as a youth, looks heavenward and begs the Almighty for guidance. "I was the son of a bricklayer who hadn't worked in five weeks," explains the elderly scribe. Exuding an air of fond resignation, the older man steps into the background as a modest household's furnishings are assembled just over his shoulder.
So begins 1933, Randal Myler and Brockman Seawell's adaptation of onetime Boulder resident John Fanté's novella 1933 Was a Bad Year. The play is being given its world premiere by the Denver Center Theatre Company. Driven by vivid performances and underscored by playfully elegiac dialogue, the 100-minute intermissionless saga about a "houseful of dreamers" entrances from start to finish.
Ricketson Theatre, in the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex at 14th and Curtis streets
Through March 3, 303-893-4100
That's mostly because Myler, who also directs the piece, stages the play with cinematic fluidity. His efforts are generally aided by a shifting backdrop of photographic montages: Vintage Boulder neighborhoods are suggested by contemporary snapshots that have been digitally sanitized to make each locale look as it did seventy years ago, while projections of wallpaper patterns, stained-glass windows and bookshelves grace the walls during scenes that take place indoors (G.W. Mercier designed the set, and Jan Hartley fashioned the projections). Some technical glitches and cartoonish portrayals temporarily shatter the play's dreamlike tone, and a couple of projections make the story seem more like a PBS documentary than a seamless theatrical reverie. But the overall effect is one of an unbroken, almost symphonic backward glance -- peppered here and there with bursts of hijinks -- at the forces that shaped a young man's destiny.
It's altogether gratifying, then, that Myler elicits a winning performance from Bryant Richards, who plays young Dom, an aspiring professional baseball pitcher bent on getting his ticket out of Depression-era Boulder by securing a tryout with the Chicago Cubs. The prodigiously talented actor regales the audience when Dom gives himself a pep talk the night before snowing his Catholic instructors with a hastily composed essay titled "The Meaning of the Mystical Body of Christ." He also tugs on a few heartstrings during scenes with his mother, Mary, who's sympathetically drawn by Jacqueline Antaramian. And he forges an effective bond with the writer, stylishly impersonated by Yusef Bulos, who delivers a host of metaphor-laden musings from various slightly detached, first-person outposts.
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Thankfully, Fanté's autobiographical snippet resonates with as much delight and joy as it does melancholy and regret. There are the engaging relationships that Dom develops with Ken and Dorothy Parrish, a couple of rich kids who live in a College Hill manse. Indeed, Dom's hardware-store and clothesline encounters with Dorothy, attractively rendered by Stina Nielsen, wind up revealing more about their desires and longings than either of them intends. And although Dom and Ken wax hyperbolic over their athletic abilities one minute and nearly come to blows the next, the laughs outnumber the sorrows that pass between them, especially since actor Michael Twist invests the happy-go-lucky Ken with a mixture of goofiness and bravado.
In the hands of veteran actress Irma St. Paule, family matriarch Grandma Bettina always seems to be saying something funny when, in reality, she's trying to invoke the deity or rattle the rafters about New World-style depravities. And as Dom's little brother, Augie, Daniel E. James puts a dramatic twist on the baseball saying "take one for the team" when he and his brother briefly square off over the breakfast table.
But the most moving scenes are centered on Dom's relationship with his hard-living, hard-drinking tradesman of a father, beautifully played by Mike Genovese. Their fiery clashes over the family's financial plight, Dom's future, mutual hypocrisies and various acts of betrayal evoke a lifetime of father-son heartaches -- most poignantly, those of fathers too hardened to the world's ways to kindle youthful passions, and of sons too blind with ambition to heed fatherly restraint.
Near the end, Dom and Papa's heartbreaking struggle comes to a head, and issues that have been lingering on the perimeter suddenly become paramount. Dom wants to help his family by sending home part of the big-time salary he's certain he'll get by playing ball. More than that, though, he wants his chance, his one shot at attaining a form of success his father can only shake a fist at. At last Papa admits to Dom, "You're good enough; you're just not tough enough. They'll break your heart." It's an exchange that, as the writer character observes elsewhere, is enough to make one "cry for all fathers and sons for being alive in that time."