Then I think about my fear of motion
Which I never could explain
Some other fool across the ocean years ago
Must have crashed his little airplane
- Indigo Girls, “Galileo”
Whoever made it possible to construct – or import – a replica of a yellow single engine plane to spend six or seven weeks jackknifed on the stage at the not-so-big NoHo Arts Center, the word “yowza!” comes to mind. So whether the plaudits go to Dana Moran Williams and/or Red Colegrove, the set designer and construction/artisan respectively for “One November Yankee,” take a well-deserved bow. It’s a beaut.
Any concern that a scale sized plane, it’s yellow wing dangling out over the audience might, er, pull focus from the human performers trying to enact a play in its midst is quickly alleviated. Harry Hamlin and Loretta Swit do their utmost to insure that this Chinese box of a world premiere by Joshua Ravetch takes flight. Playing three very different sets of brother-sister siblings, Hamlin and Swit are taking on noticeably diverse people with different agendas. As gimmicky as this might have come off, “One November Yankee” proves to be plenty humorous and rather deft. Even affecting.
Things don’t start promisingly. A WASPY arts patron named Maggie (Swit) fusses over her lost Tiffany earring and gripes pettishly over everything and anything while her artist brother Ralph (Hamlin) readies his pretentious sounding installation at a Manhattan gallery. You can tell Ralph’s an artist because he wears a black t-shirt and a scarf draped dog collar like around his neck. Maggie has made this exhibition possible, and now that she sees what it actually looks like, she is very much wishing she hadn’t. Her observations about her brother’s talent or lack thereof get nastier and his “I’m offended” remarks are, for all their hyberbole, comically flat. She calls him Ralphie, he calls her Magpie and the whole endeavor feels rather like a Noel Coward parody.
But writer-director Ravetch (whose previous plays include “Beacon” and the Carrie- Fisher solo show “Wishful Drinking”) has hands more steadily at the controls than it first appears. We’re going to leave Magpie and Ralphie behind while we visit the siblings whose fateful crash served as the inspiration for Ralph’s exhibition. Through some cosmic serendipity that is never explained – but of which the Indigo Girls might have approved – Maggie and Ralph have trippy connections with Margo and Harry, the brother-sister who crashed en route to their parents wedding, and also with Mia and Ronnie, the backpacking brother and sister who discover Margo and Harry’s downed plane two days before Ralph’s exhibition is set to open. Evian, expensive broken watches, dentistry and unmet family expectations. These things all recur through the ages.
I’ve perhaps made Ravetch’s scenario more confusing that it actually is. In a way, “One November Yankee’s” scenes are like one-acts and characters never overlap. Margo and Harry are anything but WASPs; in fact Hamlin – sounding like a dead ringer for Alan Arkin – plays a pretty fair crusty Jew. As the backpackers, Swit and Hamlin aren’t playing anything broad. These are two characters who are coping with the twin wounds of a past tragedy. On this day, they will actually address their collective elephant in the room.
When we return to the art gallery to conclude the play, Ravetch has deepened and shaded Maggie and Ralph, given us more reasons to care and in his final image he establishes one last credible connection between these characters who have never met. In this scene, Hamlin’s Ralph is triumphantly drunk. Via his take on an event that has wrecked other people’s lives, Ralph has finally amounted to something.
The two performances are, as previously noted, more than on par with their material. Swit can do snooty, but she can also do broken, and as her Margo goes through a litany of all the ways she has screwed up, the monolog moves from darkly funny to truthful misery. As Mia – who is damaged in a different way – Swit peels the layers away further still.
Hamlin’s work is even more impressive. Still dashing in his early 60s, the actor brings out all of Harry’s pain – physical and psychological- reboots to give us a closed-off but not yet dead Ronnie and reminds us ultimately that Ralph too has deeper layers thane he first showed. We forget perhaps given his magazine covers and TV career that Hamlin has classical stage training. Performing live, he has an ease and – when necessary – swagger.
He should tread the boards more often.
“One November Yankee” plays 8 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 3 p.m. Sun.; through Jan. 12, 2013. $30 (818) 508-7101, www.nohoartscenter.com.