Of all the trademarks of a traditional soap opera, subtlety is not one. Incestuous baby-switching half siblings who periodically suffer bouts of amnesia and die in fatal plane crashes only to return as their long-lost evil twins? Certainly. But not the light touch that marks what we would describe as true artistry. True artistry, however, is not what fosters the loyal audiences whose allegiances to the characters in their beloved "stories" outlive the average marriage. Husband-and-wife team Paul Dooley and Winnie Holzman appropriately follow suit with their soap-inspired comedy, One of Your Biggest Fans, a slightly overstated yet thoroughly entertaining two-hander, now playing at New Brunswick, New Jersey's George Street Playhouse.
Directed by Larry Biederman, the married couple takes on two characters each, which they alternate in between the play's three acts. Act one opens on an aging soap star named Frank (Dooley) who has played "Dr. Dan" for over three decades on the popular program Search for Our Lives (a playful homage to the godfather of soap operas, Days of Our Lives). He runs his overwritten and highly expository dialogue with his longtime girlfriend and former makeup artist Emily (Holzman) before launching into a bitter diatribe about his thoroughly disappointing life, void of any legitimate acting, and, for reasons we never completely understand, blemished by a long-standing estrangement from his daughter Violet.
Emily tries to snap him out of his incessant cynicism by encouraging him to open the overflowing pile of fan mail engulfing his desk, still leaving plenty of time, however, for some wifely nagging about his poor diet and aversion to marriage. She starts in on the heap and comes across a note from a woman named Heather, a self-admittedly unemployed, overweight depressive who cares for her elderly father and, for years, has idolized Frank's noble character. While Frank remains nonplussed by Dr. Dan's positive impact on Heather's life, Emily finds it deeply moving and sees through the letter to the desperate human being on the other side. With a turn of designer James Youmans' set, Frank's spacious Manhattan apartment becomes a rundown bedroom in an assisted-living facility where we meet Heather and her crotchety old father (Holzman and Dooley's alternative characters), witnessing the silly yet sincere impact the soap star has had on her life.
The play flashes fluorescent road signs that direct us to the "unlikely" connections between Frank and the painfully awkward Heather — namely their shared feelings of loneliness and despair (not to mention a penchant for constant snacking). However, the blatant parallels in dialogue between acts one and two, Heather's exaggerated Hello Kitty-inspired getup (selected by Esther Arroyo), and the matching collections of wall-mounted empty picture frames call attention to the fact that there isn't much more to discover than the basic conclusion to which all of these transparent signals are pointing. Act three, which unites these two worlds in a way that I will refrain from revealing, lifts up the hood once and for all, only to leave us saying, "yeah, I figured."
This spousal collaboration, roughly 25 years in the making, has allowed both Dooley and Holzman to dabble in each other's typical creative arenas — Dooley popularly known for his decades of character roles in television and film, and Holzman for her television and stage writing, including her Tony-nominated book for Broadway's hit musical Wicked. Unfortunately for Holzman, she has been forced to take her artistic joyride without the benefit of a collaborative life raft, unlike Dooley who has been blessed with his wife's prowess of prose throughout the behind-the-scenes writing process.
Though relatively simple, the clever dialogue carries the show, especially in Dooley's expert hands, delivering the material with flawless comedic timing and his signature dry wit. Holzman dives into her performance headfirst, but despite having penned her own words, the affected manner of speech and movement that she lends to both of her clumsy characters results in the material often falling flat. Neither Emily nor Heather is the most confident or elegant of women — yet we hope for their endearing qualities to override any initially unappealing attributes, if only to root for the hapless Frank to at last find meaning in the human connections he has long underappreciated. After all, without the folks who make it bearable, life is just one long wait until your maniacal half-step-brother sends you to a deserted island where you fall into a permanent coma. "Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives."