By Colin Dabkowski
NEWS ARTS WRITER
Four stars out of four
“Circle Mirror Transformation,” the clever comedy by Annie Baker that opened Friday night on the stage of 710 Main Theatre, turns the simple act of counting from one to 10 into cause for applause.
So smartly constructed is this piece of laugh-driven theater - a fast-forward glimpse into a six-week acting class in a small Vermont town - that moments with absolutely no right to be funny on their own manage to produce irrepressible outbursts of laughter.
And this production, because it has been so extraordinarily well executed by Road Less Traveled Productions co-founder Scott Behrend and his gifted cast of five, amplifies those laughs to deafening volumes.
Resounding laughter - gales of it - was the defining sound of Friday night’s opening, which marked the first local production on stage of 710 Main, formerly Studio Arena Theatre, in four years. Like the trickle of one-off performances that reanimated the 710 Main stage last year, the occasion was treated as the beginning of a new era of prosperity for the troubled 625-seat space.
Before the actors took the stage, Ross Eckert of the 710 Main board of directors gave a short address, reminding theatergoers that the last show under the Studio Arena marquee was also a Road Less Traveled production, also directed by Behrend.
“Some call it deja vu,” he said. “I say it’s the beginning of something big. 710 Main is back to anchor Buffalo’s theater district.”
If this refreshingly well-oiled and sensitive presentation of “Circle Mirror Transformation” is any indication, that new era has begun in earnest.
Baker’s play is a neat (and sometimes too-neat) exercise in comic writing. She mines the insecurities of her characters, from a hapless divorcé in his mid-40s (Dave Hayes) to a hippy-dippy acting teacher (Lisa Vitrano), for all they’re worth. But she does so using as few words as possible. Baker prefers instead to luxuriate in the awkward pauses and stilting, non-liner dialogue of everyday life rather than the idealized mode in which many playwrights work.
Across the six weeks, excerpted in neat little vignettes, the identities of each character emerge and begin to intersect with one another. The dopey but lovable Schultz (Hayes) gets romantically tied up with Theresa (Morgan Chard), who turns out to be too stuck on her ex to continue the relationship. Meanwhile, teacher Marty (Vitrano) is having her own problems with her flawed but charming husband and classmate James (Robert Rutland), while the impetuous young Lauren (Kelsey Mogensen) struggles to see the point in all the strange exercises she and her classmates must perform.
Each cast member brings just the right ingredients to the table. Hayes’ pitch perfect awkwardness matches up beautifully with Chard’s constructed confidence, while Vitrano’s grandiose gestures provide a good counterbalance to Rutland’s quiet exasperation. Mogensen gets teenage impatience and naiveté; just right.
At times, the play can feel in a sense too formulaic, too stuck on one or another built-in archetype or convention such as the aw-shucks dorkitude of Hayes’ character or the flightiness of Vitrano’s. For the most part, though, Baker uses those formulas as a launching pad, bringing new and slightly off-kilter dimensions to the familiar tropes of situation comedy.
This glimmering production itself, rehearsed as such a play must be to within an inch of its life, all but obliterates those concerns. It’s clear that Behrend and his cast have worked hard to get the timing right on each and every exchange, exhortation and facial expression. I could not detect a single joke that fell flat because of missed timing, an epic feat for any production on Broadway, let alone on Main Street.
The jokes, the cast, the venue, the director, Katie Menke’s sound design, John Rickus’ lights and Jeremy Delgado’s utilitarian set -- all of it landed directly in the center of the strike zone. The much-trumpeted “new era” for the 710 Main Theatre is already looking good.