Peg is a sketch artist for the police, and her apartment is filled with charcoal portraits of criminals, both petty and murderous. As Good on Paper opens, she’s celebrating a birthday with her sister Sandy, a romance writer, and explaining the end of her latest affair: She broke up with Dan because of his outie belly button; it seems she rejects lover after lover for some such minor imperfection. Sandy’s birthday gift is a beautiful wooden pencil acquired on a trip to Iraq — part of which was once Sumer, the cradle of civilization, she reminds her sister. And when Peg begins using this pencil to modify her portraits, miraculous things occur.
Author George Brant has several plays to his credit, but his breakout script came a year or so back with Grounded, a brain-searing, thought-provoking look at the realities of the life of a drone operator killing long-distance from a trailer in the Nevada desert. “Brant has written a brilliant script,” I wrote when the premiere was mounted by the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, “terse, angry, sad and poetic — not lyrically poetic, but a deep, tough, true poetry.” Grounded went on to receive excellent reviews in New York, with Anne Hathaway playing the protagonist. So it was a delightful surprise to hear that Brant had turned his hand to comedy, and I approached Good on Paper with high anticipation.
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Peg’s story makes for a bright, clever piece that devolves hilariously into farce. It has an evocative and original plot, dialogue that’s often very funny, and a satisfying, if not particularly startling, message. Like Pygmalion, Peg with her magic pencil creates the perfect partner, a man tailored specifically to her desires, fixing his hair, deepening his eyes, doubtless taking care of that invisible belly button; unfortunately, she’s also done a bit of obsessive doodling on other portraits. Sandy, too, fantasizes about joining the life inside her novels and half-envies the love between her hunky heroes and swoony heroines, but she remains aware of the barrier between fiction and life. Aside from a pleasant reminder that there’s no such thing as a perfect lover, there are also light-hearted allusions to a deeper and more resonant theme: the mystery of art-making and the relationship of the artist to her work.
But this production doesn’t do Good on Paper any favors. Both Caitlin Wise, who plays Peg, and Mehry Eslaminia as Sandy race through the dialogue and action as if they had somewhere better to be, indicating like crazy, working without nuance, variation or even any apparent thought. It doesn’t help that their voices are so similar in tone that if you look away you can’t be sure which one is talking, and sometimes the sound melds into an undifferentiated, fast-flowing stream. To Guy, the fellow brought to life by Peg’s pencil, John DiAntonio brings an impressive torso and some warmth — though I never detected any spark of real feeling between him and Wise’s Peg. Nor, for that matter, any genuine warmth between the supposed sisters. It felt as if the pacing was off throughout, and the large, blank set made all the actors seem almost like scrabbling hyperactive mice in a big white box.
The correct title for this production might well be Better on Paper.
Good on Paper, presented by Creede Repertory Theatre at the Arvada Center through October 25, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 720-898-7200, arvadacenter.org.