Harriet Harris and Richard Thomas
in Unusual Acts of Devotion
(© Craig Schwartz)
Harriet Harris and Richard Thomas
in Unusual Acts of Devotion
(© Craig Schwartz)
Playwright Terrence McNally has always had the knack for getting under the skin of his characters, whether he was tackling Maria Callas or an opera queen named Mendy enthralled by the great diva. In Unusual Acts of Devotion, now receiving its West coast premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse, he manages to do so again -- this time with a group of average New Yorkers in a love/hate relationship with each other and their city. And thanks in part to a first-rate acting ensemble, led by Harriet Harris, Doris Roberts, and Richard Thomas, and Trip Cullman's deft and seamless direction, the result is a sublime evening of theater.

The play's setting is the rooftop of an old and venerable apartment building in Greenwich Village, where the residents have gathered for a casual dinner party on a hot August evening. Mrs. Darnell (Doris Roberts) is the building's resident curmudgeon, disliked but tolerated by all. Nadine (Maria Dizzia) and Leo (Joe Manganiello) are a young married couple, celebrating their fifth anniversary. Leo is a sexy Italian musician who is saddled with both the debilitating disease of diabetes and a predisposition to speak before he thinks, and Maria is his rock -- and the peacemaker of the group.

Rounding out the diners are Chick (Richard Thomas), a guide for Gray Line bus tours, who is still mourning the loss of his gay lover, Aaron, to suicide five years earlier, and Chick's one-time lover, Josie (Harriet Harris), a former English teacher who has lost her job after an affair with a 17-year old male student, and who is just home form a stint in rehab. There is also the mysterious Man (the haunting Evan Powell), who spends most of the evening hiding on the roof's water tower, observing the goings on below him.

Throughout the play, there is plenty to witness as secrets are revealed and emotions are laid bare. But the plot's revelations are second fiddle to the truth of McNally's characters, all of whom need and crave what all humans do: a connection with another person.

Roberts brings a lifetime of experience to the role of Mrs. Darnell, and her every move and every look is perfectly etched. Manganiello shines as Leo, a real man's man with a soft mushy center (and a surprisingly fluid sexuality), while Dizzia sparkles as the building's motherly resident and new mother-to-be. Thomas expertly walks the fine line with Chick, who is alternately a bitchy queen, pathetic widower, determined flirt, and caring friend. Finally, Harris steals the show, creating yet another indelible character as she brilliantly expresses Josie's fragility, loneliness, bitterness, anger, and even joy.

Santo Loquasto's rooftop scenic design expertly sets the place and the mood; Ben Stanton's lighting design gives the proceedings a soft summer night's glow; while John Gromada's sound design never lets one forget what a bustling, noisy, dangerous but thrilling city New York is.