Garrett Long and Steven Pasqualein The Spitfire Grill(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Garrett Long and Steven Pasquale
in The Spitfire Grill
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
About a third of the way through The Spitfire Grill, the unlikely heroine, a young ex-con named Percy Talbott, and her unlikely suitor, parole officer and sheriff Joe Sutter, sing "This Wide Woods." An exquisite love song that goes through as many seductive changes as light skipping over water, the ballad is not the only highlight in the Playwrights Horizons production of this rural musical, which has been adapted from Lee David Zlotoff's 1996 movie. However, it's one of very few in a potential crowd pleaser that pretends to be hard-hitting and unflinching, but is, ultimately, one of the warm-and-fuzzies.

As the troubled but no-nonsense Percy awakens Gilead, a sleepy backwater Wisconsin hamlet, she encounters numerous threats from the crusty locals--though nothing she can't deflect with relative ease. Indeed, there are so many pulled dramatic punches throughout the show that, if it were a prizefight, the crowd would be loudly booing. As it is, The Spitfire Grill is gentle with its audiences' sensibilities at just about every opportunity it has to rough them up.

Because a magazine picture of the countryside in autumn appealed to her, Percy (Garrett Long) arrives in Gilead and takes a job in the town's only restaurant, The Spitfire Grill. Though hard-nosed proprietor Hannah Ferguson (Phyllis Somerville) doesn't take to the sojourner immediately, she thaws when Percy proves to be crisply efficient and unfailingly cooperative. The others, who are initially suspect of the newcomer's intentions but weaken in their resolve, include Sutter (Stephen Pasquale), the gossipy Effy Krayneck (Mary Gordon Murray), and the wife-dominating Caleb Thorpe (Armand Shultz). The sole denizen inclined to welcome Percy is Caleb's wife, Shelby Thorpe (Liz Callaway).

As time goes by--"Been 11 days since I walked right through the door," Percy updates at one moment--the holdouts come around even more fully. Percy dreams up an essay contest, the prize being the establishment Hannah has wanted to off-load for a decade, and the letters that come in from aspirants across the land give everyone a Chamber-of-Commerce-type pride. Everyone, that is, but Caleb, who continues to resist Percy; he's uncomfortable that Shelby is finding new purpose as Percy's helping hand at the Grill.

Percy also resists her own charm. She's harboring a secret about her past, and her inability to put whatever it is behind her disturbs Sutter. But he's fallen so much in love with the alien resident that he discards his determination to leave Gilead; instead he offers to build Percy a home on the 10 acres of land that his father has deeded him.

Actually, there's another secret-harborer in Gilead: Hannah, whose son Eli went missing in the Vietnam war. She has apparently never stopped mourning him, and neither have the other citizens, for whom his death symbolizes the lost hope that Percy is now resuscitating. In her quiet despair, Hannah has taken to leaving a loaf of bread out every night for someone billed in the program as The Visitor (Stephen Sinclair). Saying more about the identity of this visitor would cross the boundaries of fair reviewing. But it's a fair wager that very few in the Spitfire Grill audiences won't guess who the mysterious bread-eater is before the characters do.

Mary Gordon Murray and Phyllis Somervillein The Spitfire Grill(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Mary Gordon Murray and Phyllis Somerville
in The Spitfire Grill
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The underlying formula for The Spitfire Grill is familiar from many a previous tuner: A life force appears and vanquishes contrary forces. Just look a few blocks east to The Music Man for a similar tale, though The Spitfire Grill is hankering to take a place in the annals of musicals that probe the darker aspect of existence. If, however, book writers James Valcq and Fred Alley mean business, why do they have Caleb obtaining background information on Percy and then buckling the minute the obsequious Shelby tells him to back off? Why is Effy, who early in the proceedings telephones everyone she knows to denigrate Percy, such a ready pushover? Most significantly, why is Percy--who proves to have had an unfortunate childhood--so flawlessly good? It's as if she arrives in the symbolically named Gilead as a healing prophet, more sinned against than sinning and all the more pious for it. Why is there nothing in The Spitfire Grill that amounts to a genuinely dramatic confrontation?

The score of the show--Valcq composed the music and Alley, who died earlier this year, wrote the lyrics--only occasionally alleviates matters, as in "This Wide Woods" and "Forest for the Trees." The texts of the essay letters are presented as a series of song bits. For the most part, though, these ersatz folk tunes are wearyingly made up of rhymed couplets. Worse, the rhymes are not only constantly predictable, but scant as well. Anytime "town" is sung, "down" is nipping at its heels, and vice versa; the two words must be rhymed two dozen times here. A deliberate conceit? If so, it's ill advised.

Moreover, Valcq and Alley don't always demonstrate a knack for knowing where a song should go. In the second act, Percy finally unburdens herself to Shelby in a lengthy speech that should have been a song; one of the first rules of writing musicals is that their songs should occur precisely at the points in the narrative where heightened emotions are expressed. Not here: Instead, it's timid and loving Shelby who gets the opportunity to sing in response to Percy's outpouring, lifting her voice dreamily on the subject of what happens to wild birds. (Incidentally, Percy falls asleep during the number).

One forceful ditty, "The Colors of Paradise," is repeated. That's ironic because, while the characters chant about how colorful the world can become, The Spitfire Grill is relentlessly monochromatic. Perhaps Michael Anania's set, constructed almost entirely of wooden slats, affected the creators and company more than would have seemed likely. The cast--emoting and singing but rarely dancing under David Saint's thoroughly professional director's hand and Luis Perez's choreographing--is solid, but they always seem to be performing in shades of brown. Garrett Long, lean and taut, brings Percy to faultless life. Phyllis Somerville's Hannah is rugged but correctly frayed. Steven Pasquale not only sings manfully but also makes Sutter's uncertainties thoroughly plausible. Liz Callaway, who never does wrong with that strong and pure voice of hers, does nothing here to mar her spotless record. Mary Gordon Murray plays the chatty postmistress well enough, but has been outfitted by costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge in a boxy business suit that makes one wonder why she works at the P.O. Little can be said of Armand Shultz and Stephen Sinclair as their parts are, respectively, poorly written and barely written.

The Spitfire Grill takes place in a beanery with specials like "rutabagas" listed on a small blackboard, and there is a good deal of food preparation and consumption. Yet, for practical reasons, there is no actual food or drink on stage; it's all mimed. And that may be the best metaphor for the play: The plates and cups are in place, but the truly nourishing vittles are absent.