By Jean Lowerison
How are human connections made — and missed? Is there such a thing as serendipity, or is playwright Steven Dietz’s character Bernadette right when she says, “There are only accidents?”
Dietz plays with these questions in his charming “This Random World (the myth of serendipity),” in its San Diego premiere through March 18 at North Coast Repertory Theatre.
Scottie (Anne Gee Byrd), a mother in her 70s, lives alone but has an aide, the kindly Bernadette (Yolanda Franklin). She also has two adult children, Beth and Tim, and a secret life of travel that she does not share with them. She has tired of certainty and now embraces randomness in her life.
Beth (Lisel Gorell-Getz) worries about her mom, but at the top of the play is busy reading her self-written obituary to Tim (Kevin Hafso-Koppman), just to tie up that loose end so he won’t have to do it when the time comes. She says she’s planning a big adventure “way off the grid” in Tibet, and is thinking ahead.
Tim, an amusing nerd sitting on the floor and noodling around on his computer, says, “You just stop living. I’ll take care of everything else.” Meanwhile, Tim’s “everything else” has just been stalled by the loss of both job and girlfriend.
Bernadette’s sweet sister Rhonda (Ava Hill) works at Arbor View Memory Gardens, where she helps (and sometimes puzzles) the bereaved — and is jazzed by another (unseen) employee’s suggestion that some of the people who walk through their door might not be, well, alive.
Then there’s Tim’s high-school ex-girlfriend Claire (Diana Irvine), an engagingly loony late-20s character, and her present boyfriend Gary (Patrick Zeller), with whom she has one of the best (and funniest) theatrical breakup scenes on record. She says she “sucks at life.”
From these characters’ viewpoints, all are lacking connections, one to the other and sometimes (it seems) to themselves. But since we, the audience, are outside their world, we get to watch them through time shifts and observe the connections that are actually made, as well as ponder the ones that might have been.
It’s an intriguing idea, made more fascinating by Dietz’s ability to write not just engaging characters but wonderful, often funny dialogue.
Byrd’s Scottie is suitably mom-like, willing to lie or just leave things out to keep the kids from worrying. But she’s also willful and not shy about expressing her opinions.
Franklin’s Bernadette has a welcome calming influence — on me as well as on Byrd’s somewhat scattered Scottie.
Gorell-Getz is charmingly eccentric as Beth; Hafso-Koppman amusingly low-key and aimless as her brother Tim. Both are unsatisfied. Beth wants a big adventure; Tim is just discovering that his internet joke has gone awry.
Diana Irvine is a stitch as Tim’s ditzy ex-girlfriend Claire, who seems to have trouble keeping a boyfriend.
There’s more to Patrick Zeller’s Gary than is first seen, but it’s his initial classic interactions with Claire you’ll remember.
Ava Hill is adorable as Rhonda. If you ask me, she’s also the real adventurer here (or maybe just around the bend), eager to try just about anything.
The uncredited Joe Paulson does an amusing turn toward the end that adds to the quirky quotient.
David Ellenstein directs this bittersweet piece with great humor, panache, and humanity.
Marty Burnett gives us a woodsy setting — long rectangular strips of wood glued into a solid piece on stage right; squares of wood pieced together on stage left. In the middle is a projection of a river or lake scene — gray, rainy and with trees. The action takes place in various locations on land, simply rendered with movable furniture.
Elisa Benzoni’s suitably woodsy costumes look just right. Matthew Novotny and Melanie Chen Cole make solid contributions in lighting and sound designs.
These folks all live in their own separate worlds (don’t we all, really?), connected (though they don’t know it, only the audience does) by serendipitous (or random) happenings. It’s a fascinating evening of theater.
— Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at email@example.com.