Lawrence Toppman

‘Fly By Night’ struggles to stay on course

A parent and child (Jerry Colbert and Lisa Smith Bradley) share a moonlit moment in “Fly By Night.”
A parent and child (Jerry Colbert and Lisa Smith Bradley) share a moonlit moment in “Fly By Night.” George Hendricks Photography

One of the few terms I remember from high school chemistry is “suspension,” a condition where multiple items mix in a solution but do not fully combine. I thought of it during “Fly By Night,” a loose-knit package of comedy, melodrama, mysticism and dreamy romanticism that never blends its elements into a cohesive pattern.

Kim Rosenstock conceived the play now at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, then wrote the script with Will Connolly and Michael Mitnick.

They cover exactly one year in the lives of seven people, from Nov. 9, 1964, to the night of the famous Northeastern blackout of 1965. They take two hours and 35 minutes to tell their story (including one standard-length intermission) but don’t always know what story to tell.

Act 1 aims mostly for laughs. Two sisters from South Dakota move to New York City, Daphne (Cassandra Howley Wood) with the idea of becoming a Broadway star and Miriam (Lisa Smith Bradley) with no fixed idea at all. Both fall in love with Harold (Christopher Ryan Stamey), a sandwich-maker who writes sensitive songs about sea turtles on the side.

While Harold copes with his irritated boss (James K. Flynn), Daphne becomes the muse for a playwright (Stephen Seay). Pathos enters in Act 2, as Harold’s widowed dad (Rob Addison) takes on more importance. Jerry Colbert plays an “Our Town”-style narrator plus many supporting parts, including a loony gypsy who predicts a drastic fate for Miriam. (The screechy voice is funny for a while, then often incomprehensible.)

This is the kind of self-conscious writing where supporting characters get funny names: The cranky boss is Mr. Crabble, the tempestuous playwright Joey Storm, and Harold’s dad – who has closed himself off – Mr. McClam.

That quirkiness makes the show seem slight at first, before it swims into deeper and murkier waters. The message, reached after sudden and unlikely epiphanies, seems to be simply this: Embrace human connections where you find them.

Director Chip Decker correctly decided to present this narrative with speed and fluidity. (The play feels long, not slow.) Colbert takes time for his avuncular narration, and nobody rushes through tender moments, such as Mr. McClam’s shadow-lit memory of his first date with his wife-to-be. But there’s no dawdling, and bits of Dee Blackburn’s set go on and off quickly to keep us moving forward.

Music director Ellen Robinson rocks the piano with her unseen quartet, giving the songs extra energy. The cleverness of the lyrics frequently compensates for the mundanity of the melodies.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Fly By Night’

When: Through May 7 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, 650 E. Stonewall St.

Running time: 155 minutes, including one intermission.

Tickets: $31-$35.

Details: 704-342-2251; www.atcharlotte.org.

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