Classic movies such as It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street and Moonstruck are citied in the play and author June Daniel White is clearly inspired by and seeks to emulate them in this fable. Those films resonate due to their appealing characters and well-crafted scenarios. Delta in the Sky with Diamonds or Maybe Not’s rambling plot is too ambitious as a stage play.
Purgatory has been discontinued and so we are in a temporary holding area between heaven and hell. Delta has committed suicide by jumping off of the Empire State Building before her impending marriage. She’s had a troubled life as we later learn that she was the sole survivor of a school bus crash as a child that also killed her parents.
God is dismayed by the lack of feeling in the world and so he transports Delta to the Diner-Be-Damned in Wabash, Indiana. There we meet the struggling waitress Hollywood and the minor and faded rock star Lyle. Delta’s task is to bring the couple together and a valuable necklace figures in the complications. We learn that Hollywood drives her deceased father’s car and that it’s a replica of the 1974 Pontiac Firebird Esprit that James Garner drove on The Rockford Files. This prompts Lyle to play that television show’s theme music on his guitar. Even more details are imparted such as that both of them have been on the wrong side of the law.
Later God transports Delta to Pellino’s Diner on 34th Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan to observe. It’s owned and run by the good soul Tommy, Delta’s former fiancé. He is now engaged to the sympathetic Bobbie and dealing with his overbearing but well-meaning mother Rosie as well.
The finale take place in Hollywood, California where Delta meets a new man during the red-carpet première set up for Meryl Streep’s latest movie.
Ms. White’s dialogue is expressive and contains a lot of jokes that land, especially in the lengthy discussions between Delta and God. The characters are all finely realized but the action is literally all over the place without making much impact because there’s so much going on.
Onstage for virtually the entire production, White also plays Delta with the plucky charm of Sally Field. It’s an engaging performance combining comedy and pathos but has to contend with the wearying marathon she’s written.
Instead of opting for a straightforward comedic approach, veteran and distinguished New York City stage and screen actor Austin Pendleton mixes it up as God with effective results while wearing a flowing classic hunting coat and waterproof winter boots. Exasperation, anger, and superior comic timing are all variously employed by Mr. Pendleton who brings great depth to this ever-present role.
Regina Gibson as Hollywood and Bob D’Haene as Lyle make a terrific squabbling couple who are meant for each other and they both create heartfelt and compelling characterizations.
Vincent Ticali excels as the grief-stricken Tommy and as a cheery technician. The blonde and outgoing Melissa Hurst is wonderfully lively as Bobbie. With the force of a Clifford Odets matriarch, the vibrant Joan Porter gloriously makes the most of her appearance as Rosie.
Director Michael Padden’s staging brings clarity, visual texture and as much pace as possible to this voluminous material. However, the three-sided playing area hasn’t been fully taken into account as there are plentiful sections where actors are seen from behind for considerable portions. Mr. Padden’s efforts with the cast though are inspired and go a long way to rendering this complicated play stageworthy.
Large black and white floor tiles, a glittery star on the wall and small silvery lighting fixtures are subtle features of Brooke Van Hensbergen’s inventive heavenly scenic design. Ms. Van Hensbergen’s diner furnishings are artfully realistic. Hollywood is wittily low tech with a tiny red carpet unrolled. Everything is pleasing to look at.
Lighting designer Ry Burke provides precise shifts from bold darkness to crisp brightness to suggest the varying fantastical and every day dimensions. Pop songs and effects are represented by Margaret Montagna’s vigorous sound design.
Animal prints, glowing colors and gleaming accessories for the women comprise some of the perfect details of Johanna Pan’s resourceful costume design.
With its warmly redemptive spirit, Delta in the Sky with Diamonds or Maybe Not strives for emotional resonance but only fitfully achieves it.
Delta in the Sky with Diamonds or Maybe Not (through February 10, 2018)
Boogla Nights Productions
Theatre 54@Shetler Studios, 244 West 54th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 1-800-838-3006 or visit http://www.deltainthesky.com
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission