Lonely, I’m Not

Topher Grace and Olivia Thirlby give assured performances in Paul Weitz’s moderately successful spin on the boy-meets-girl formula.

Olivia Thirlby and Topher Grace
in Lonely I'm Not
(© Joan Marcus)
Olivia Thirlby and Topher Grace
in Lonely I’m Not
(© Joan Marcus)

If the writers of the world spent as much time worrying about solving the national healthcare crisis or the war in Iraq as they do into finding new spins on the boy-meets-girl, boy gets-girl, boy-temporarily-loses-girl formula, who knows what would happen? Instead, we get shows like Lonely, I’m Not, Paul Weitz’s moderately successful new play, now getting its world premiere at Second Stage under Trip Cullman’s highly efficent direction.

To his credit, Weitz — whose plays include Roulette and Trust and whose films include the marvelous About a Boy — puts a bit of thought and invention into his variation on this familiar territory, even if the execution could use a bit of improvement.

The boy is Porter (Topher Grace), a former corporate whizkid who hasn’t worked — and barely left his semi-shabby Los Angeles apartment — since suffering a highly visible nervous breakdown four years ago, and is now tentatively putting one sneaker-clad foot back into the world. The girl is Heather (Olivia Thirlby), a fiercely independent, highly intelligent, and tightly wound UBS analyst — who happens to be blind since age two.

The pair meet on a blind date (seriously) arranged by their mutual friend, Little Dog (the fine Christopher Jackson), and, naturally, they click immediately. But there’s little doubt in anyone’s mind — except perhaps Heather’s — that complications will eventually ensue on their road to permanent togetherness.

Unfortunately, Weitz doesn’t really delve into his main characters’ psyches as deeply as he might. We learn that Porter had an emotionally withholding (and now dead) mother and that his father, Rick (well played by Mark Blum in one of his two roles), is a manipualtive con artist — a lineage that could screw up anyone. But we never fully understand why Porter imploded after reaching success so quickly, or why he’s been unable to reenter the working world.

Weitz fares a bit better in creating Heather — whose dad is long-dead and who has a warm if slightly overprotective mother (the invaluable Lisa Emery, who scores in three roles). She refuses to see her blindness as any sort of handicap or impediment to success, and can’t grasp why everyone else isn’t following suit. However, her blinders (if you’ll pardon the expression) make her, at times, overly defensive, slightly insensitve, and socially awkward.

Making a remarkably assured stage debut, Grace finds the right combination of self-deprecation, self-awareness, and self-destruction in Porter, while tapping into enough likeability to make this unlikely romance seem believable. He also has considerable chemistry with Thirlby, who captures Heather’s outward confidence perfectly, but could be a bit more effective in showing us her inner vulnerabilty.

The show’s standout performer, however, is Maureen Sebastian. She tackles three seemingly stock characters — Porter’s obnoxious ex-wife Carlotta, Heather’s meek secretary Wendy, and especially, Heather’s too-chirpy lesbian roommate Claire — and delivers each with truly consummate flair, stealing scene after scene. (She’s aided in her mission, far more than her castmates, by Emily Rebholz’s spot-on costuming.)

At times, though, it’s hard to concentrate on anyone’s performance or the script, due to the protean work of set designer Mark Wendland, lighting designer Matt Frey, and projection designer Aaron Rhyne, who find ingenious if distracting ways of both creating the numerous titles that precede each scene (such as “Accidental,” “Train Wreck,” and “What The”) and using computerized images to flesh out the cast and otherwise minimal surroundings. Maybe they should be the ones trying to find a solution to the European debt crisis.

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