Jerry Mayer knows how to write a compact, witty, lighthearted script. Mayer, who wrote 2 Across, currently onstage at the Invisible Theatre, developed his skills working for years as a writer of TV sitcoms. His impressive credits include teleplays for M*A*S*H, All in the Family and Mary Tyler Moore.
Now he's focused on writing for the stage, but 2 Across shares an undeniable kinship with those smart but lightweight TV shows. It skips gracefully like a stone across the water's surface, which certainly provides a degree of satisfaction for a skilled skipper and an admiring witness. But in the end, the stone sinks, and there's nothing lasting to take away from the effort.
Thoughtfully developed by director Gail Fitzhugh, IT's production is well-paced and well-performed. The set is perfect, and all of the other production elements click together without a hitch. Still ...
The story is a clever contrivance. Middle-age strangers Janet (Maedell Dixon) and Josh (David Alexander Johnston) find themselves returning to their homes from the San Francisco airport via the commuter train known as BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) at the unlikely hour of 4 a.m. Attractive and impeccably put-together, she boards first, obviously seeking an empty car. She settles into a seat and bursts into tears, but only for a moment. She quickly composes herself, grasping The New York Times crossword puzzle she's working on, almost as a shield against her feelings.
Then cheerful, chubby, chatty Josh takes a seat across from her (two across—get it?), carrying a paper grocery bag from Whole Foods and his own copy of the same puzzle. He tries to strike up a conversation by rather boldly asking if she would move, since she's sitting in what he believes is his lucky seat. She just as boldly declines, giving rise to some cross words (get it?), and then responds politely but coolly to his further attempts to interact.
But she just can't refrain from pointing out that he is using a pencil to work the crossword, while she uses a pen. He pumps her for clues to words he's having trouble with, and she reluctantly yields to his requests. When he gets frustrated and forsakes the puzzle for the sports page, she gives him a thorough dressing down. Crossword puzzles are a metaphor for life, she declares; they require commitment and the creativity to think beyond the literal, qualities he obviously doesn't possess. But he persists in his attempts at contact, and she ultimately plays along. Perhaps despite their wedding bands, they are lonely folks in need of companionship wherever they can find it, even on a commuter train at 4 a.m.
Mayer is sharp and skillful as he crafts their exchanges, building in plenty of opportunities for humor as they clash and finally connect on their 84-minute trip. And Fitzhugh and company skillfully discover and deliver the comedy deliciously.
But Mayer asks a lot of his characters—and us—by straining credibility as Josh and Janet march toward what might be romance. In fact, it seems totally implausible that this rather uptight professional woman would launch herself physically at this man she's known for an hour or so, even though Mayer tries to justify her behavior by throwing alcohol into the mix. Mayer's sitcom roots certainly show here as the action turns broad and farcical.
But Dixon and Johnston valiantly commit themselves to Mayer's story. And, really, who knows what can happen in the wee hours of the morning on a commuter train in San Francisco? Probably stranger things than what we witness here.
Undeniably, it's the performances that make this show work. Dixon inhabits her character completely; Johnston embraces Josh with perhaps a little less skill, but with unquestioned enthusiasm. His earnestness is irresistible, and he charms us just as he tries so desperately to charm her. Dixon and Johnston work together very well, even in the midst of Mayer's defiance of plausibility.
With such a brief exposure to these folks, it's hard for an audience to invest in them emotionally. Although we enjoy their antics, we don't really take away much more than a smile. The script is easy—it doesn't even challenge us as much as The New York Times crossword would. Mayer doesn't stimulate our intellects or engage our hearts. He simply entertains.
And that's just fine if your taste in theater runs toward a simple sitcom style. But some of us expect and desire more, even if we're going to see a comedy. That doesn't mean there needs to be a heavy hand delivering a ponderous message while we laugh, but we certainly yearn for a deeper emotional footprint than Mayer and his characters provide.
2 Across is a simple confection, and the IT production mines the script for every bit of geniality it offers. The result is a light and charming story which leaves us with a sweet taste of hope for all the lonely commuters on the train of life.