“The Luckiest People” takes its title from the “Funny Girl” lyric, and by the end of Act 1, you’ll wonder if playwright Meridith Friedman is being ironic: Her people, who so desperately need people, have deplorable luck indeed.
Oscar, half-immobile and half-blind in his 80s, desperately needed his caretaker wife, but she has just died and left him bereft and bitter.
Daughter Laura, who married a Chinese man and lives in unwelcoming Shanghai, thinks she may need an extramarital fling with an old boyfriend who has popped into view.
Son Richard has no firm idea what he needs: Presumably David, his attentive partner, but definitely not Oscar, who now figures to move in with the two men.
David needs Joshua, the 6-year-old he and Richard agreed to adopt. But as Richard gets cold feet, that life-changing move may drive a wedge between the partners and split them forever.
Friedman resolves these dilemmas with compassion, insight and ambiguities that seem right for the mood she establishes. I’ve seen all the winners of the nuVoices new play festivals since Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte created the event in 2012, and none has deserved a longer or more fruitful life. (“People” won the 2016 festival. Its rolling world premiere began in Denver, came to Charlotte and will play other cities.)
Though Friedman limits herself to four characters, she covers a wide range of alternatives: gay and straight, male and female, old and middle-aged, child-rearing and childless, Jewish and Christian and nonbeliever. She neither pleads for any of them nor preaches to us.
Oscar, for example, remains hard to like yet easy to understand. He accepts his son’s sexual preference to a point – Oscar and David get along well – but can’t wrap his Depression-raised mind around the idea that they want a son. Laura and Richard engage and irritate us by turns. Only David has consistent appeal; he knows what he wants and doesn’t judge others for pursuing what they want.
Sidney Horton directs his quartet of actors with unobtrusive skill, and their unforced performances strike the right notes. Dennis Delamar played Oscar in readings at the 2016 nuVoices festival and settles easily into the stooped posture, shaky walk and stubborn ferocity of the old man. (Is it a coincidence he shares his name with the grouch of “Sesame Street”?)
ATC newcomer Susan Stein reveals the quiet anxiety of a woman who has one chance to decide whether to fulfill her needs or those of her little boy, though this choice gets short shrift in the script. Scott A. Miller embodies the emotional anchor all the others seek at times, and Tim Ross makes us see the awkwardness of the balancing act Richard performs: He’ll find no entirely satisfactory outcome, and his shoulders sag under that knowledge.
Actor’s Theatre opens a five-year residency at Queens University with this play; it performed there before while trying to open a permanent home on Freedom Drive but has abandoned that quest. The intimacy of Hadley Theater suits this show well, as it should suit any production ATC might do.
Director of development Bennett Rich preceded Saturday’s preview performance by saying the company now hopes to revive nuVoices after a two-year hiatus. If so, and the festival discovers plays as worthwhile as this one, the luckiest people will be us.