The Center of Gravity is two hours of pure comic delight, served up on the vest-pocket stage of the Manhattan Theatre Source with style, energy, and a marvelous combination of slapstick, down home wit, and oddly touching philosophic depth.
In the tiny town of Gravity, Arkansas, in the middle of nowhere, miles off the bustling highway of life, a peculiar assortment of small town characters obsess over the hoped-for appearance of a man shot from a circus cannon years before. Where has he been all these years? Where have these characters been all these years? The play shows the quest of Clem Kaddidle, half rube and half Everyman, in a sincere but bumbling search for his identity. Tired of alternating between caterpillar and cocoon, he longs to be a butterfly, albeit a burly, hairy-chested, sweaty butterfly who makes up for his sometimes faulty personal hygiene with a squirt or two of Lemon Pledge. The character, as brilliantly played by Rusty Tennant, is a buffoon with depth.
Jen Daum plays his wife, Flora. She is looking for love but finds only lust in the absolutely worst place-the arms of an Elvis look-alike named Flagship McCoy. Flagship, played by Adam Rothenberg, is a con man who writes his life story in the form of a black-and-white comic book. Daum and Rothenberg play off each other like actors who’ve been working together for years and loving it.
Bekka Lindstrom is weird, wacky, scary, and even cuddly-lovable as CradleRock, a wild-eyed, warm-hearted dabbler in clairvoyance and electricity. Jeff Wills is Moe Franko, Clem’s partner in a filling station on its last legs, and he could be just a foil for Clem, but he’s much more than that. His energy and comic timing are impressive. Joanna Liao, as a stranger who trails the play’s climax in her wake, is gorgeous, sultry, and mysterious.
The Center of Gravity brings to mind Chekhov on an acid trip, or Ionesco as he might have written if he’d grown up in a one-horse American town. Its strong suit is the skillful bounce between lowbrow and philosophical comments on time, identity, and the baffling difficulty of trying to be fully human. The comedy is always sure-handed, the philosophy never heavy-handed. McNamee and Carstensen are playwrights to watch with eager anticipation.
The Center of Gravity is a play that, in its complexity, presents moment after moment where it could go disastrously wrong, but Daryl Boling’s deft, intelligent direction keeps it moving delightfully past those moments with the skill of a choreographer and the sensitivity of an old soul. The set by Maruti Evans puts the audience right inside the gussied-up filling station office and Clem and Flo’s downscale digs. Drew Bellware’s sound design, Jamie Comenole’s costumes, and David Alan Comstock’s lighting all contribute beautifully.