Jason Butler Harner, Alice Ripley, andLisa Steindler in Five Flights(Photo © Sandra Coudert)
Jason Butler Harner, Alice Ripley, and
Lisa Steindler in Five Flights
(Photo © Sandra Coudert)
On the fifth day, God created birds. In Adam Bock's quirky new comedy Five Flights, this is the inspiration for evangelist Olivia to start up a new religious movement dubbed "The Church of the Fifth Day." Bock's play is the latest in a string of provocative and entertaining works from the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, which is fast becoming one of my favorite companies in New York. Five Flights is a refreshing blend of lyrical passages, snappy dialogue, and solid characterizations that takes an unexpected path to its bittersweet conclusion.

Alice Ripley -- best known for her musical theater roles but also quite an accomplished comic actress -- plays Olivia with a passionate zeal and obsessiveness that never quite slides over into insanity. In fact, while Olivia is revealed to have several faults, her belief in her ministry is not one of them. In a chance encounter, she meets Adele (Lisa Steindler), whose father had built an aviary to house a small wren that he believed possessed the soul of his deceased wife. The aviary has since fallen into ruin and, following their father's death, Adele and her two brothers have to decide what to do with it.

Taking Adele's story as a sign, Olivia wants to convert the aviary into a church for her ministry. Opposed to the idea is Jane (Joanna P. Adler), the wife of Adele's brother Bobby. Caught in the middle is Adele's other brother Ed (Jason Butler Harner), who just wants to let the place decay and rot into the ground. Rounding out a tight ensemble cast is Matthew Montelongo as Tom, a professional hockey player who loves the ballet and wants to love Ed; and Kevin Karrick as Tom's teammate André.

Director Kent Nicholson brings a whimsical touch to the proceedings. This is exemplified by a hilarious "dance," choreographed by Julia Adam, in which Tom and André square off for an impromptu hockey match in the locker room. Dressed only in towels, they strike faux ballet poses and use a shampoo bottle as a hockey puck. The sequence establishes the playful friendship between the two characters. Absent from their interaction is any trace of homophobia, which might be expected in a locker room scene between a gay athlete and a heterosexual teammate. As the two dress, they candidly discuss Tom's obsession with Ed. André's advice: "I think you should just kiss him."

Several other sections of the play are highly stylized, with the actors standing down stage center and presenting monologues to the audience in a confessional manner. Shouting matches between Jane and Olivia are also presentational; the actors only rarely glance at each other, and their hand and body movements are timed to accompany their clipped line delivery. However, such devices never seem forced because the actors are all firmly grounded in their characterizations. Rather than being restricting, the stylizations often allow the play's subtext to come to the fore. The only moment that did not quite work for me was an admittedly difficult scene in which a flock of birds descends upon Olivia: A cheesy sound effect and flashing lights fail to capture the effect that the author seems to have intended.

Performed without an intermission, the play is broken up into five sections. The first of these, titled "The Narrative," is by far the longest and takes the audience through the entire dramatic arc of the piece. The next three sections -- "A Vision," "Mad Scenes," and "The Conclusion" -- are brief flashback sequences that give background information on why the story ended the way it did. These scenes contain some of the finer character moments in the play, particularly as regards Olivia, Jane, and Ed. The final scene, "A Little Dance," serves as a coda and opens the play up to a slightly more optimistic ending -- or, at least, one wherein the possibility of future happiness is not foreclosed.

This non-traditional structure serves the play well; the fact that the revelations of the plot are unfolded in the three middle scenes forces the viewer to reevaluate some of the characters' interactions with each other during the first part. For all of the production's stylistic experimentation, however, Five Flights is a very human story of people looking for love, spiritual fulfillment, and maybe a little bit of meaning in a world filled with disappointments.