Richard Manley’s A Question of Words
is a moderately interesting, moderately boring new drama about an eligible but prickly advertising woman and the eligible but mopey reclusive poet who moves in next door. The only question that the play leads us to wonder about is, will they hook up, and if so, when and why.
Unfortunately, we don’t get a definitive answer until the end of Act Two, which means that in the interim we’re doomed to spend our time focusing on a few subplots that provide the opportunity for moderately witty writing without ever shedding light on anything an audience might reasonably care about.
Fortunately, the acting of Robin O’Dell as Madison Avenue type Mary is delightful from start to finish, and Mimi Rice as her mother Lucille could hardly be more charming. Add a couple of other engaging actors, a fine set by Kenny Jensen and persuasive costuming by Saidah ben Judah, and the result is a pageant that’s pleasant and attractive even at its most insignificant.
The story concerns award-winning jingle writer Mary Scunzio and the once-famous Derby Wright, a top poet who stopped writing when his beloved wife was murdered in the midst of a carjacking. When these two first meet, Mary is amiable, but Derby is numbed and surly. But then there’s a sort of pharmaceutical crisis — I can’t say more — and the ice is broken. If not deeply changed, Derby at least becomes communicative, and the possibility exists that he’ll finally notice his hot neighbor.
While we’re waiting this storyline out, we’re supposed to ask (but we don’t) whether Ernie Frank, head of the apartment co-op’s board, will manage to have Derby thrown out of the building, and we’re further invited (we decline) to inquire whether Ernie’s wife Christine will convince Derby to recite for her monthly reading group, or at least go to bed with her. Editor Lucille decides she wants new poems from Derby, Ernie’s Uncle Max resolves to find the skeletons in Derby’s closet… Writer Manley knows how to construct a busy play. What he doesn’t show evidence of is having something important to say about any of the subjects he brings to our attention: how or when to stop mourning, the profession of poet in a digital age, the ethical quandaries of working in advertising, being lonely in a big city. You name it, Manley has nothing to tell us about it. There’s more intellectual daring in a typical sitcom.
But this production does have Robin O’Dell in the lead, and that’s reason enough to ignore all its deficiencies. O’Dell is one of the very best actors in the Bay area, but she’s been offstage for 10 years, and, justly, much missed. Now she’s back, and as Mary she’s radiant, endearing, charismatic, winning. As her mother, Mimi Rice is a powerful presence, exuding wisdom and obstinacy and goodness of heart. Tiffany Faykus as Christine Frank is worth watching, even though the part she’s been given — the predatory socialite — is just a caricature, and Stephen Riordan as her cartoon husband is a lot of fun as, one after the next, all his peevish schemes get squashed. But Jason Beck plays bereaved Derby so blankly, he seems more drugged-out than dejected, and Richard Rice as Uncle Max never fully inhabits his character.
Bob Devin Jones’ direction is characteristically intelligent (though I don’t think we need a stagehand changing the hands on that stage-right wall clock), and Jensen’s set, of two side-by-side living rooms, is sharply attractive. This is a strikingly good-looking production, whatever its failings.
And failings there are — along with certain successes. See the show for O’Dell and Rice, if for no other reason. This is first-rate acting, though not for a first-rate script.