There's a funny joke at the heart of Food for Fish, the show opening Single Carrot Theatre's second season, and also a wistful truth.
The black comedy by Adam Symkowicz, which ran off-Broadway, is a modern riff on Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters. In the Russian masterpiece, the title characters are trapped in a dull provincial town and long for the excitement of the big city, Moscow.
In Symkowicz's update, the three women reside in the ultimate urban playground - Manhattan - and yearn for the security and quiet of their childhood home in suburban New Jersey.
This is a play written by a young author about young characters, and chances are that this is a theme that resonates with the Carrots, a group of talented 20-somethings who relocated to Baltimore from Boulder, Colo., in the summer of 2007 to establish a theater troupe. Their new life is exciting, but it also involves a lot of hard work, and from time to time, they must get homesick.
Happily, the troupe seems to be adjusting to its new surroundings.
Its current production builds power as the evening progresses, and two actors, in particular, offer heartfelt performances: Elliott Rauh as Bobbie, a budding playwright who roams the streets kissing strange women in the middle of the night, and Jessica Garrett as Sylvia, an aspiring journalist and the youngest of the sisters. Other performances are less assured. But I'd lay odds that, given time, this company will get to where it needs to be.
Food for Fish has its share of absurd moments. As the play opens, the three sisters are living with the corpse of their gravedigger father, who died the previous year. Their inability to bury him indicates that they literally can't let go of the past. The eldest sister, Barbara, is an agorophobe who hasn't left the apartment in seven years. The middle sister, Alice, is a scientist who is trying to isolate the gene for romantic love, though she, herself, has a hard time making emotional connections. Sylvia wants to be taken seriously in her chosen field, but finds herself consigned to writing articles about lipstick.
The play also questions male and female behavior and character traits. It's probably no coincidence that Bobbie, the show's most autobiographical character, majored in Russian literature in college and minored in gender studies. Because there is much fulminating about what it means to be a man or a woman, Symkowicz apparently decided to cast those roles with two actors who really can't answer those questions. Thus, Barbara is played by a guy wearing a skirt, heels and perhaps the most unflattering wig ever created, while Barbara's husband, Dexter, is portrayed by an actress in Bermuda shorts and a tie.
It's a clever idea, but it would pose a tough challenge for even veteran actors, because it throws a roadblock in the audience's path. Not only is it tricky to portray a character of a different gender, the audience needs extra convincing before it will suspend disbelief. As a result, Barbara and Dexter are the least-polished portrayals of the show.
Director Genevieve de Mahy wisely steers away from the most egregious stereotypes; Aldo Pantoja, who plays Barbara, doesn't mince when he walks, and Eileen del Valle (Dexter) doesn't grab her crotch.
But Pantoja and del Valle seem to be working so hard at being convincing as their gender opposites that they don't have the energy left to develop their characters. The script tells us that Barbara is full of fear and Dexter grapples with repressed rage, but those feelings aren't evident from the performances.
But when Garrett is on stage, her emotions spill over her face like water from a drinking fountain. Likewise, when the script calls for Bobbie to become enraged, Rauh is genuinely frightening.
As writers from Thomas Wolfe to Dylan Thomas have noted, the past isn't recoverable. You really can't go home again. But shelter can be found in new places. Wallpaper can be hung, and windows painted. The new residence will seem unfamiliar at first. But over time, it, too, may start to feel cozy, welcoming and warm.
IF YOU GO
Food for Fish runs at Single Carrot Theatre, 120 W. North Ave., through Oct. 26. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. $12 for adults and $10 for students and seniors. Information: 443-844-9253 or singlecarrot.com.