Don't Fret

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Directors typically impact a play in one of two ways. The most common way is for the director to assume the mantle (and often the scepter) of a deity, imposing conceptual visions based on a gut reaction to a work and, hopefully, to a playwright’s stated intentions—though there’s no guarantee any of that will amount to much. The better way is to do what Peter Paige (oft remembered for his role as Emmett on “Queer as Folk”) is doing with his direction of Krista Vernoff’s Me, My Guitar and Don Henley. His M.O. is what is affectionately known as a “light touch.”

Vernoff’s piece examines a sidewinder of a familial sextet: Leah (played by a star-in-the-ascendant named Tara Franklin); her mother Isis (Jennifer Dorr White); her half-sister Janelle (Kaili Vernoff)—the product of a fling Isis had with a man other than Leah’s father Bob; Leah’s other half-sister Sarah (Stephanie Nasteff)—the product of Bob’s fling with Judy (SuEllen Estey); and Leah’s stepmother Sunny (Mary Elaine Monti)—a schmaltzy standup comic married to Bob for the last 25 years or so. They’re assembled because Bob—entirely unseen but brilliantly drawn—is in the hospital dying of esophageal cancer. The altogether peculiar biological and emotional relationships among the women are revealed slowly and referred to obliquely during the first moments of the 75-minute one-act, but any quizzicality regarding who is who and what is what is put in check when Leah, perky as a peach, drags a whiteboard onstage displaying a playfully color-coded genealogical chart.

Still, the flowering of Vernoff’s play involves much more than disentangling roots and saplings. Bob, it seems, was a pop musician whose personality, undisciplined and irascible, torpedoed his success; he was a larger-than-life enigma whose excesses with drugs and women dealt each woman a psychological deck of cards unlike anyone else’s. As various characters come to the fore, old resentments and unhealed scars boil and bleed anew. Her ever-present guitar rarely out of reach, it’s Leah’s hope to reach a temporary armistice between the warring women. Yet even with Bob’s mortality bearing down on them, we know that’s pie-in-the-sky thinking: to paraphrase a Henley lyric, the play is all about the end of Leah’s innocence. With characters addressing us as nakedly as they address each other, there’s unrestricted humor here too—stretches of wry commentary mixed with beautiful and honest acting that consistently pushes the play above a sinking soap opera.

Such an achievement owes a debt to Paige’s directorial sleight-of-hand. On the barest of sets (a café table here, an upstage seating area there), Paige vigorously thumbs his nose at concept, moving the actors strictly by motivation: there are more than a few moments when the onstage traffic seems as messily interwoven and congested as the dysfunctional family dynamics being described by Vernoff, who happens to be the executive producer and head writer on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy.” Me, My Guitar, and Don Henley is, undoubtedly for Paige—as much as for the playwright, a deep dish of love into which they have poured their hearts.

Of all the performances, Franklin’s is most exquisite. She’s cutely bewitching—a dead-ringer for Valerie Bertinelli during the first two seasons of “One Day at a Time.” Like Bertinelli, Franklin possesses a great gift: give her a mediocre line and she’ll wrestle it down until it cries out with inner life. Better yet, give her one of Vernoff’s insightful dollops of dialogue—or even a Henley song to ironically sing—and she’ll make it a moment of strumming transcendence.

Through October. 14th Street Y, 344 E. 14th St.
(betw. 1st & 2nd Aves.), 212-352-3101; $18.

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