Playwright Peter Sagal and director Louis Tyrrell have taken divergent paths since the two worked together in the late ’90s, first on Sagal’s “Denial” at the Pope Theatre in Manalapan in 1997, then on his play “What To Say” at the renamed (and now-defunct) Florida Stage in 1999.
Sagal is, as NPR fans know well, the host of the newsy and funny quiz show “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!,” which has an audience of 5 million listeners. Tyrrell is now running his second post-Florida Stage theater company, Theatre Lab, which performs in an intimate, 150-seat space on the Florida Atlantic University campus in Boca Raton.
The two have reunited for the world premiere of Sagal’s “Most Wanted,” a poignant comedy with heart, belly laughs and a subterranean strain of melancholy.
Sagal wrote “Most Wanted” in the late ’90s and sent the script around, but it didn’t get a production — luckily for Tyrrell and Theatre Lab audiences. Though the play remains set in 1999, as the country was on edge about the potential of a Y2K disaster, its real concerns are timeless. And that its long-delayed world premiere should be in Florida seems like destiny.
“Most Wanted” follows the misadventures of an older Jewish couple, Doris (Elizabeth Dimon) and Frank (Michael H. Small), as they’re on the run with their baby granddaughter, Jasmine. Upset because their testy daughter Isabel (Niki Fridh) decreed that they couldn’t see the baby more often than once every two weeks, Frank and Doris told busy “Izzy” they were taking her baby to the zoo, then left their home in Delaware to become senior-citizen desperadoes in the Sunshine State.
Rechristening the baby “Julia” to help cover their tracks, the couple also refrains from using credit cards, maintaining a bare-bones, cash-only existence in motels that even smell cheap. As they make their way toward Key West, they run into a wide variety of characters. Yet all the younger women remind them of Isabel, and a young cop looks just like Izzy’s soft-spoken WASP husband, Gerard (Matt Stabile). Even the older guy (Michael Gioia) who runs their first on-the-lam Florida motel seems to pop up everywhere on the couple’s journey to the southernmost point in the United States.
Guilt and paranoia? Maybe so. But Sagal is also tapping into the confusion that can take root and grow as we age.
What makes “Most Wanted” not just entertaining but decidedly resonant are the truths woven into the script. The friction and resentments between Izzy and her parents will land differently if you’re a young adult or an older person, but they will land unless your childhood and/or child rearing were miraculously trouble-free. The challenges that come with aging, including illness and memory loss, also factor into a script that sometimes becomes comically surreal.
Theatre Lab’s production is, like its performance space, more modest than Florida Stage’s might have been. Yet there’s no diminishment in the gifts that these artists bring to the show, not in Michael McClain’s clever set with its oversize Florida postcard, nor in Miguel Ferreira’s lighting design, Matt Corey’s sound design and Dawn C. Shamburger’s costume design.
Tyrrell’s direction of his uniformly excellent cast is smart, insightful and calibrated to deliver both the over-the-top nature of the Sunshine State (if something weird happens, you can bet Florida is involved) and the intricacies of painful family dynamics.
Dimon, a four-time winner of the Carbonell Award, is simply one of the region’s finest actors. Her delivery is full of grace notes, and her sympathetic portrayal of a woman who wonders whether she might get motherhood right the second time around has the audience on Doris’ side from the get-go.
Small’s Frank is, by turns, engaging, apoplectic, frightened and a wee bit jealous when a senior citizen Lothario puts the moves on Doris. He and Dimon find the tenderness in the couple’s relationship, and Small clearly communicates how strange it is to deal with Florida’s oddities and to face the numbered days that come near the end of life.
Fridh, Stabile and Gioia supply one of the great delights that actors and audiences can share as they create a variety of distinct characters.
In addition to playing Frank and Doris’ furious, difficult daughter, Fridh becomes a warm and sartorially flashy pawn-shop operator, a judgmental clerk behind a counter of humanely raised meat and an older woman robbed of most of her memories by a stroke. Stabile plays not only Isabel’s hubby, a man finally pushed to a rare loss of control, but also the cagey cop who tracks down Doris, Frank and Jasmine/Julia. To see him exit as one character and return almost immediately as the other, his hair and clothes and demeanor totally different, is a kick. Gioia skillfully brings to life very different characters, including the suspicious motel owner, the older gent who believes in making love while the sun shines (i.e., frequently), the stroke victim’s care-giving and compassionate husband, and an out-of-touch guide at former president Harry Truman’s Little White House in Key West.
Just like Doris and Frank’s time on the lam, the run of this play is short. And as with these loving if misguided grandparents, “Most Wanted” is a touching, enlightening entertainment experience worth pursuing.
“Most Wanted” runs through Dec. 17 in Parliament Hall on the Florida Atlantic University Campus, 777 Glades Road, in Boca Raton. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $35. To order, call 561-297-6124 or go to FAUEvents.com.