It seems Sheila, first seen on a balcony as an ebulliently happy bride, decided to go—as casting directors are wont to say—“another way” in her love life, choosing stability (her boring groom) over creativity (the bereaved Henry).
Henry’s roommate and confidante, Gwen (a solid, appealing Leslie Hiatt) has her own heartache to deal with: Her wife, Diana, has left her, accusing Gwen of infidelity. Gwen and Henry support each other with wisecracks, gentle prodding and pleasant songs provided by Douglas J. Cohen (music and lyrics) and Dan Elish (book and lyrics, based on Elish’s novel, Nine Wives).
Playing all the other women in Henry’s confused life (including Sheila), Allie Trimm shows a hilarious range of idiosyncrasies and subtleties whether she’s Henry’s annoying Jewish mom, the glamorous publicist Tamar or the down-to-earth co-worker Christine, all of whom vex Henry while inevitably leading him to discover his real self, his evolution. (All the characters are helped by Siena Zoë Allen’s costumes which range from casual to peculiar.)
Henry serially woos these women trying to forget Sheila, all the while suppressing his creative streak which includes staging a musical version of The Great Gatsby.
Christine discovers a silly poem Henry has written, “The Tale of the Otter,” and makes a big to do-over it even though it’s barely above the level of a limerick. For a short time she’s his muse, encouraging him to finish his “Gatsby” musical until fast-talking Tamar decides to make Henry and his play her project, even resorting to giving casual Henry a new look: yellow beret, tight black jacket and a slick black and gold shirt, all of which makes him look ridiculous and shows how desperate Henry is for a female’s approval (yet another demonstration of Allen’s costuming acumen).
Blind to true love and affection, Henry finds himself alone as he watches those around him find love…but not for long. A witty plot twist offers Henry a dash of hope. Christine sardonically looks back on her short-lived relationship with him (“It’s Only a First Date”) and Gwen muses on the true nature of a romantic partnership (“The Unromantic Things”).
The writers often veer into clichés, but explore them with freshness and candor, even dealing with Henry’s embarrassing reaction when he embraces Christine after their first date (“Hard”).
There is one shtick, a much-repeated dirty phone call, that was unnecessary and increasingly annoying. Meant to test one of the character’s faithfulness, it just didn’t work.
The cell is one of the more pleasant and flexible performance venues in the city. Libby Stadstad’s set, a long, white runway, brought the action right into the laps of the audience. Hovering above the stage is a Plexiglas sculpture cut to resemble the New York skyline while a large, colorful box was raised and lowered to interesting effect. Chris Steckel’s lighting took advantage of the pristine whiteness of the cell, adding color where it was needed.
Joe Barros, the show’s director, understood the material and how easily it could have become chaotic. He kept the energy at a slow, pleasant boil.
The Evolution of Mann (extended through October 27, 2018)
the cell, 338 West 23rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-838-3006 or visit http://www.thecelltheatre.org
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission