Nik Kourtis, R. Elizabeth Woodard and Miguel Govea
in The Timing of a Day
(© Rachel Esterday)
Nik Kourtis, R. Elizabeth Woodard and Miguel Govea
in The Timing of a Day
(© Rachel Esterday)
Owen Panettieri makes playwriting look so easy in The Timing of a Day, now at Center Stage, his impressively realistic portrait of three twenty-somethings sharing a cramped but homey Harlem apartment. The work seems never to strive for effect -- whether humor or pathos -- and the talented ensemble cast, under Joey Brenneman's subtle direction, manages to give us plenty of both.

Within the play's first 10 minutes, a calamity strikes one of the roommates, seemingly out of the blue. So appealing are all the characters, you hate to contemplate the next couple of hours without every one of them present. Fortunately, Panettieri's cleverly structured script -- which hopscotches across two years -- manages to enfold the past into the present, while also giving us an intentionally ambiguous glimpse of the future.

We first encounter Paige (the lithe, playful R. Elizabeth Woodard), having an early-morning cranky fit as she stresses about being late for work. A theater activist who helps educate teenagers about birth control, Paige comes across as that rarity, a straight-shooter so unaware of her own allure and so free of feminine wiles that she'd excel at being a guy's best friend, while remaining lovely enough to inspire romantic musings.

Doug (the delightful Nik Kourtis, who resembles a young Kevin Kline), an actor and dancer, is immune to Paige's sexual allure, since he's gay. But he's also clearly devoted to her. Amid the chaotic early-morning routine, Doug mothers Paige much as he does the third member of the household, Josh (Miguel Govea), who has given up his dreams of a career in the theater to pursue a career in advertising.

Also on hand is Matty (Justin Anselmi), Paige's sometime boyfriend, who doesn't live in the apartment, but whose first overnight prompts a tectonic shift in the three residents' relationships. Josh, who is clearly jealous, can't understand Paige's attraction to this "dull-ass" loser, and neither can we.

Indeed, Anselmi makes a convincing case that nothing much beyond basic animal urges is going on under that aggressively cocked baseball cap. It's pretty evident, too, that Paige is only using Matty as a place-saver to avert any drift she might be feeling in Josh's direction.

Apartment-sharing is an all-but-universal rite of passage for young post-grads cracking big-city life, and it's a situation that has been too inadequately served by the punchline-driven tropes of television sitcoms. With considerable craft, Panettieri lets the laughs arise organically; but he also has a gift for depicting tragedy, as well as the anger and tenderness it can trigger in equal measure.