When January Feels Like Summer is an unexpected delight. Romantic comedy has been feeling its age lately, but author Cori Thomas rejuvenates it by adding novel contemporary touches to the usual fairy tale.
We’re uptown, and there are two couples who concern us. Immigrant Nirmala (Mahira Kakkar) runs a bodega. She is legally married, but her husband has been in an irreversible coma for several years, and even though he was nothing like a good husband she still feels that to start dating sanitation worker Joe (Dion Graham) would be wrong.
Meanwhile, there’s young Devaun (Maurice Williams), a laid-back ladies’ man with a gift for the malaprop and a susceptibility to homosexual panic. He takes a liking to Nirmala’s sister Indira (Debargo Sanyal), who is intrigued but wary, not least because she’s a pre-op transwoman (aka Ishan).
Nirmala is not happy with Ishan’s desire for transformation, and especially not when she is pressured to pull the plug on her comatose husband to pay for it.
The fifth and last character is Devaun’s best friend Jeron (originally played by J. Mallory McCree, now played by Carter Redwood), who’s smarter when it comes to reading comprehension, but clueless about chatting up a girl. As a pair, they have a naturally good-natured and supportive friendship.
Romantic comedies often collapse under such contrivances, but in practice this play holds up beautifully. Nirmala’s struggle to accept that she has a right to tenderness in her life is sensitive without being preachy, and Ms. Kakkar is frankly fantastic in the part. She finds an exceptionally quiet and truthful center for her characterization, and as a result Nirmala’s breakthrough moments feel absolutely real and not at all melodramatic.
As Devaun, Mr. Williams has a different set of challenges. First, he has to make the malapropisms seem completely natural, so that a line such as “a prederator trying to infest himself some children” is more than just word salad. This he does perfectly.
Second, he has to convince us that Devaun sees Indira as a woman rather than a transwoman. Since none of the other characters see her that way, this is probably impossible, but he does get close enough to keep us in the scene.
When things run this smoothly one is allowed to forget that there is a director at all, and so hats off to Daniella Topol for being self-effacing in the best possible way.
Playwright Thomas has a superb ear for speech patterns. The way each person talks is finely tuned not only to the character, but to the person being addressed. And in the case of Ishan/Indira, the language evolves along with the characters’ self-representation.
The plotting is deft. It happened at least two or three times that we feared Thomas was not going to get her people out of a tricky situation without something terrible or cringe worthy happening, and each time she solved the problem well within the conventions of the genre. Particularly (and refreshingly) free of cliché are the scenes in which Indira has to explain to her sister (and by extension the audience) how the world looks from her perspective.
There are some tiny infelicities in the script. Joe has a monologue in Act 2 that’s a bit repetitious and should be shrunk, and Nirmala’s explanation of why her husband chose her for a bride is unclear. And then there’s the title, which is too bland and only tenuously connected to the story. However, these are tiny blemishes amidst pages of perfection.
Set designer Jason Simms has done very well with EST’s difficult space, one of the worst examples we have here of artistic accomplishment in an inadequate venue. Somebody give this company a new home, they’ve earned it. As for this production, it is to be hoped it can get mounted at a larger venue. It would be lost on Broadway, but perfect at the Minetta Lane or the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
The best thing that can be said here is that Thomas redeems the romantic-comedy formula by refusing to treat it as a formula, and instead fills it with genuine feeling.
When January Feels Like Summer (reopened through October 26, 2014)
Ensemble Studio Theatre and Page 73 Productions
549 West 52nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or http://www.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/134
Running time: two hours and ten minutes including one intermission