When Lenny comes on stage at the start of the cunning and quirky play, “Companion Piece,” he is nervously trying to knot a necktie while addressing an unseen person in the bedroom from which he just emerged. Her name is Rosemary.
As the play progressed, I began wondering what happened to the unseen Rosemary, who seems to disappear from out of sight. It’s not until more than half way through the story that the riddle of Rosemary is solved, and it’s a doozy. I will not divulge spoilers here, because it’s too much fun to find out for yourself why there’s something about Rosemary.
Later still, near the end of the play, we get to meet the mystery woman (though not in the flesh, exactly) and she is quite a sight. The superb actor who plays Rosemary, Emma Simon, makes an indelible, if eerie, impression, without moving a muscle. In fact, what she does with her body control is so remarkable, it is hard to process. If that sounds salacious, it is anything but. There’s nothing tasteless whatsoever.
The regional premiere of “Companion Piece” is on stage through June 30. For tickets: DenizenTheatre.com; 845-303-4136.
Part of the charm and the drama of the absorbing piece is that playwright Kevin Armento keeps us guessing. More than that, he keeps us thinking… about relationships: how essential they are to a fulfilling existence; how elusive meaningful relationships can be; how we manipulate relationships to suit our selfish motives and our convenience.
Lenny is a computer repair guy. A ladies’ man he is not.
Far from a cliched romantic comedy, this is a refreshingly off-beat and original rom-com.
Lenny’s friend and client Kip (Thaddeus McCants), who appears in one memorable scene, is a smooth and fast talker who tries to mentor his pal in the rigors of romancing. His basic philosophy is to stay out of trouble by keeping the truth to yourself. Kip’s truth is that he’s married, with an infant, and cheats. He excuses the dalliance as “a little shot of novocaine and then I go home.” When Kip tells Lenny, “Everyone deserves someone they can be really happy with,” Kip doesn’t sound like he’s referring to his spouse.
Lenny seems most comfortable and confident when toying with the inanimate objects of technology. We learn that when his dad cautioned him not to “knock up” his first date, in junior high, Lenny wondered why he ever would “want to hit her.” He’s that naive—and adulthood hasn’t seasoned his romantic instincts much.
As we meet him in his barebones bachelor pad, Lenny is getting ready to welcome a woman with whom he has struck up an online relationship in a business forum. She is paying him a visit while she’s in town for a conference. Despite her best efforts, coming on to him unabashedly, Lenny misses more than one broad hint from the flirtatious Dolores, fetchingly played by Suzy Kimball, that she is hot to trot.
Lenny suggests going out. Dolores counters with a preference for hanging out in his place to, maybe, “watch a movie in bed.” To which Lenny blankly asks, “Are you tired?”
Yeah, he’s that clueless. If that strains credulity, our suspension of disbelief is kept aloft by how adroitly Mr. Armento manages his characters and their situations. There are no wasted words or intentions. The stakes remain high between Lenny and Dolores.
As the story unfolds, and the people on stage engage in figuring each other out, we find ourselves leaning in, eager to know what’s about to happen next as we try to figure them out. That’s smart, technically proficient writing.
The success of this production also is attributable to the uniformly excellent cast, tightly directed by Joe Langworth.
As loner Lenny, Harry Lipstein, the urbane founder of Denizen Theater (as well as its producing artistic director), creates a lovable, vulnerable sad sack. Despite playing against type, he is able to pull off Lenny’s affect, eliciting empathy from the audience.
As exasperating as his innocence can be, we’re rooting for this guy, whose life of solitude is etched on his face and measured in each tentative step he takes.
Mr. Armento speaks with a clear, strong voice. He knows how to propel a provocative plot even if it doesn’t move in a straight line. That’s a powerful skillset for a writer to wield. The result is theater that is both illuminating -- in its treatment of a familiar subject, relationships—and illusory—in how it illustrates that relationships can take many forms that go outside the norm.
The actors at times articulate their bodies in crisp, angular movements that approach choreography. Suzy Kimball as Dolores and Thaddeus as Kip, both playing Type A personalities, are constantly gesticulating. That creates a stark contrast with Mr. Lipstein’s wilting posture as he plods around his digs.
Even though this is the fourth production I’ve seen in the inaugural season of Denizen, no two configurations of the performing space have been alike. Each time I’ve entered the theater, the seating and the stage are in new locations.
That is a testament to the forward-thinking creativity of Mr. Lipstein, an architect by trade, and co-artistic directors Ben Williamson and Brittany Proia.
The set that recreates Lenny’s living room and dining nook for this production is so realistic and functional that when I saw production photos before attending the performance, I thought they were taken in somebody’s actual home.
With “Companion Piece,” Denizen, an ultra-modern theater concept well-suited to the invigorating college town vibe of New Paltz, continues to fulfill its mission of producing black-box theater that thinks and plays out of the box, to the benefit of its audiences and its creative collaborators.
Bruce “The Blog” Apar promotes local businesses, organizations, events and people through public relations agency APAR PR. He also is an actor, a community volunteer, and a contributor to several periodicals. Follow him as Bruce The Blog on social media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 914-275-6887.