Center Stage seems to have a thing for public accommodations these days. The company's last play was set in a nondescript motel room. The current one is set in a nondescript hotel room.
The deja vu feeling is intensified since both productions have been presented in the intimate Head Theatre, with the stage in the exact same position, and by the fact that the first character to enter goes directly into the bathroom.
The similarities are all coincidental, of course, but still intriguing, especially when it comes to the mix of humor and some pretty serious stuff that fills each piece.
Katori Hall's "The Mountaintop," about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s last night, added a layer of the surreal to that mix as the playwright examined a flawed giant of a man with a big dream. The new work by Marisa Wegrzyn, "Mud Blue Sky," being given its world premiere by Center Stage, keeps things all too real as it examines an average woman with a little dream.
Make that three average women and an average teenager, all wishing for something better in their lives, all dealing with various difficult personal issues (the teen is even dealing with dealing, as in drugs).
"Mud Sky Blue," a slender play that Center Stage has beautifully cast, takes place in a chain hotel conveniently located near Chicago's O'Hare Airport. The room central to the action is occupied by a flight attendant named Beth. Down the hall is her colleague, Sam (short for Samantha), and coming to visit is one of their old friends, Angie, a flight attendant who was fired after gaining weight.
Outside the hotel is the tuxedo-sporting Jonathan, a high-schooler who should be at his prom. Turns out he has a little business to transact with Beth. Once this lone male ends up in the company of three women, complications are sure to arise.
If all of this sounds like the set-up for a sitcom, you're right. The Chicago-born, 31-year-old Wegrzyn, who is now in Los Angeles trying her hand at TV writing, has concocted a tight, comical and eventful one-act script that could make a good pilot for a series on cable (some of the language would keep it from network consideration).
But the televisual style does not keep "Mud Sky Blue" from succeeding as good old-fashioned theater. It has structural cohesion. It introduces and fleshes out the characters with little, telling details — Sam's trouble with names; Beth's idea of an entrepreneurial prospect if she takes early retirement; Angie's memories of a passenger she once helped; Jonathan's interest in "Top Chef."
Along the way, the play puts a fresh, amusing spin on well-covered topics, among them parenting, pot and porn, all the while providing just enough substance to shore things up underneath.
Chekhov it ain't, but there's something to be said for plays like this, and companies that make room for them on the schedule. (Remember the bittersweet Steven Dietz one-act comedy "Shooting Star" a couple years ago at Everyman Theatre? Similarly lightweight and engaging — and, incidentally, also related to air travel.)
What helps give "Mud Blue Sky" an extra push is the well-matched ensemble, directed with a sure hand by Susanna Gellert.
She has the actors moving through their paces with keen attention to timing and nuance as the action unfolds on Neil Patel's spot-on set — I'm sure I once stayed in that hotel. As Angie says, waxing nostalgic about her flying days and all those layovers, such cookie-cutter rooms can be somehow comforting, "like a bland hug."
A loose-gravel perimeter on the stage effectively enables the action to move outdoors at key moments, while adding one more layer of very familiar atmosphere to the setting. (For a very different example of Patel's scenic design, check out Washington National Opera's new production of Bellini's "Norma" at the Kennedy Center.)
In between periodic rumbles of jets, the characters tumble into the room and, eventually, into each other, like baggage heading for the carousel.
Beth, nursing a bad back and fears for the future, is played with dynamic tension by Susan Rome, who reveals the woman's independent streak as deftly as the vulnerable side.
If the circumstances that first brought Beth into contact with Jonathan are almost absurd (and not the most plausible detail in the play), the bond that keeps them connected makes more sense, especially the way that Rome subtly reveals it in the last scene.
The lanky Justin Kruger does an effective job as Jonathan, a soft-spoken kid with grown-up pretensions and an unspoken need for mothering. Kruger is especially good with succinct, deadpan lines. (After having trouble getting paid by a couple of the women for his merchandise: "You're worse than freshmen.")
Sam, a single mom who has a son about Jonathan's age, has a persistent need to party, a tendency to put the flighty in flight attendant and a darker edge — even a conscience — beneath the cynical surface. Eva Kaminsky leaps colorfully into the role and proves especially adept at physical comedy, which gets awfully funny by the time liquor and libidos have a chance to collide in the room.
The older and wiser Angie generates some amusing bits, too, but also provides the occasional dramatic relief in this comedy. It's a fine assignment for Cynthia Darlow, who gives an endearing, gently shaded portrayal, the finishing touch in this well-oiled staging of a modest, diverting play.
"Mud Blue Sky" runs through April 14.