David Greig's quirky, charming two-hander, Midsummer [A Play With Songs] now playing at Theatre Row's Clurman Theatre four years after its debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is so often reminiscent of the Tony Award-winning musical Once that you half-expect its unlikely lovers Helena (Cora Bissett) and Bob (Matthew Pidgeon) to break into a chorus of "Falling Slowly." Even if the show's original tunes (with music by Gordon McIntryre) aren't as consistently haunting as Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova's Oscar-winning ballad, they beautifully speak to the universal themes of love, pain, and the whole damn thing.
Much like Once as well, Greig's work seems to constantly threaten to outstay its 100-minute welcome as Helena, a successful attorney with a troubled personal life, and Bob, a music-loving, petty criminal facing a mid-life crisis on his 35th birthday, make their way through Edinburgh one memorable weekend after meeting in a local wine bar.
But this innovative playwright (who also directed the piece) consistently finds creative ways to keep his somewhat meandering tale unusually fresh. Not only does Greig use a mix of writing techniques that range from first-person narration to having Helena and Bob briefly play an assortment of colorful characters, he even asks audiences to participate in a philosophical lecture, educates us on the history of Japanese rope bondage, or finds a most unusual use for an Elmo doll – diversions that sometimes makes us laugh or even gasp. (It's amazing Sesame Street hasn't sued him!). But the work's focus still stays on whether Bob and Helena will find their own version of happily ever after.
As accomplished as the writing, direction and simple (yet effective) design by Georgia McGuiness prove to be, the production's ultimate success rests on the talents of its two highly appealing and hard-working performers to make us care about their future. Bissett adroitly captures the dichotomy of so many 21st-century women, who have complete control of their professional lives while oddly ceding their personal futures to the whims of family members and unsuitable romantic partners. Helena can be simultaneously strong and vulnerable, and one can easily see how a man like Bob might fall for her.
Pidgeon is equally well-cast, displaying the right sort of everyman quality for Bob, as well as letting us know that there are hidden depths and unexplored smarts inside of him. As Bob hints more than once, there's also a little bit of darkness in his past, though when Greig finally reveals that "secret," it's both far more touching and innocuous than one might have imagined, which only makes us hope even more for a fulfilling finale.
Whether or not, one is a sucker for a non-traditional romance or simply a fan of first-rate theatrical experiences, Midsummer [a play with songs] proves to be an ideal tonic for the mid-winter blues.