By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
A bunch of Pittsburghers are trapped on the T as it takes a late night ride from Station Square to the South Hills in Steve Hallock’s “Lights Out.”
“Light’s Out” is a character study, filled with some decidedly odd characters. The smart aleck, Sam Alec (Connor McCanlus), a cheating husband, Stanley (John Michnya), a drunk girl, Nadine (Jenny Malarkey), a Bucco’s fan, Mick (Michael Lane Sullivan), and a host of misfits.
There’s no plot except that the trolley is stopped in the tunnel and the passengers start to panic. It was a modern take on “Lifeboat,” with a black and gold twist. It’s as if “Bus Stop” collided with “No Exit” on the Red Line. Consider the title: “One train, not running.”
They are trapped on the T in the Mt. Washington Transit Tunnel; on a magical trolley car that makes stops out of order; the trolley travels to the Potomac stop and circles back to the Arlington stop for some reason (see www.portauthority.org). It’s a small detail to get wrong, but an important gaffe. It was, after all, a play set in Pittsburgh with an audience full of people from Pittsburgh, and an easy thing to correct. If the play were mounted in Chicago, no one would have noticed.
In “Lights Out,” each passenger gets their own moment to shine. Some stay in the spotlight longer than others, but there’s a good cross section. The passengers are ethnically diverse, varied incomes and intellectual levels. Oddly, many of the passengers share an extensive knowledge and love of jazz and the blues, and not one passenger said, “Geez. I hate this music,” which probably would have happened if the scenario were real.
Sam Alec gets a lion’s share of spotlight. He’s narrating the story as he types his observations out on his laptop. He is also annoying his fellow travelers with his snarky remarks. Sam Alec continues to chat up a young man (Arjun Kumar) who just wants to read his book in silence.
Bits of McCanlus ooze out of Sam Alec. The wall between character and actor is porous here, like a loosely woven gauze. It’s one of the smarter choices in the play. McCanlus exudes charm even as he’s pontificating on the scientific demise of the solar system. He also produces some of the biggest guffaws in the show, actual belly laughs.
The other passengers get some nice moments. A romance develops between buzzed hottie Nadine and sports enthusiast Mick. It’s a meet-cute story right out of Paramount Studios Rom-Com Division.
Stanley is a dichotomy. At first, you’re rooting for him, but, towards the end, his character takes a sharp turn. Michnya does a great job slowly revealing Stanley’s layers.
One passenger, also named Sam (Nik Nemec), mostly sits around and complains. Spoiler: He complains with just cause; for some unexplained reason, Sam ends up at the Eat N’ Park at South Hills Village on a Saturday night. Nemec’s performance, mostly frustration and annoyance, is laudable.
Another passenger, Anita (Melissa Franklin), spouts bible verse. She memorized scripture very well, but doesn’t really get a chance to reveal any depth of character.
Manny (Sam Lothard) is the voice of reason, a construction worker clad in a reflective vest. Lothard does a fine job as the affable every man.
There’s just so many of them. Nine passengers (actors) and three additional non-speaking roles (department store mannequins) and the conductor (Thomas Hammond). Hammond is rarely seen but his deep voice emanates throughout the show.
It’s hard to focus on the passengers. Once you are sympathizing with one character, you’re immediately thrust into a different story.
Kudos to director Cheryl El-Walker who cast the show so perfectly. Each character fit each actor extremely well.
Side note: El-Walker not only directed, she was the costume and makeup designer.
Special mention to Mark Whitehead for sound design. The noises of the trolley reverberated through the house. It certainly sounded like the whole audience was going along for the ride.
The plot of “Light’s Out” may stall on the tracks, but the characters are stimulating. It just seemed they each had more interesting places to go.
“Lights Out” runs till April 15, 2017 at the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, 937 Liberty Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here.