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Theatre Review (San Diego): Unusual Acts of Devotion by Terrence McNally at the La Jolla Playhouse.

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It’s a hot August night on the roof of an old Greenwich Village apartment house, where some of the inhabitants are gathering to celebrate the fifth anniversary of a couple in the building. He, Leo, is a jock with diabetes and a certain floating sexuality; she, Nadine, is a steadying force in their marriage and in the building. Also present are the resident curmudgeon, whom nobody likes; a gay Grey Line Bus guide whose male lover committed suicide a couple of years back; the guide's erstwhile female lover who is suffering from bipolar disease; and a mysterious stranger who watches all of them from above like a vulture waiting for prey. These are the inhabitants of Terrence McNally’s new play Unusual Acts of Devotion.

The play unfolds on this rooftop amid the usual McNally ruminations on relationships and death. This is a particularly sober piece, though there are lots of laughs. It is said that McNally wrote it to explore how relationships had been affected by 9/11. Everyone is dying to connect, and trying to fend off death, except the married couple who are are attempting to heal infidelities and secrets. In reality, everyone has secrets, and they are revealed in the course of the evening with humor, pathos, intrigue, and hovering fear.

The actors are really wonderful. Doris Roberts of Everybody Loves Raymond does a version of her crusty mom, but with more dimensions and even some pathos. Joe Manganiello is sexy as the male side of the couple, evoking sexual felling in almost everyone. Maria Dizzia as the confident, supportive wife often brings the play back to the ground.

Richard Thomas does another gay McNally character, but this one is suffering from his lover’s suicide. He is such a fine actor he can pull it off, but I never really believe he is gay, and I wonder what the play would have been like if the character had been portrayed by a gay actor.

Harriet Harris plays Josie the English teacher, fired for having an affair with a student and still wanting to connect with someone on the rooftop. She steals every scene she is in, but then she has the advantage of playing a nutty character. Evan Powell is the silent hovering menace who could be a murderer on the run, or Death himself. He is very effective.

Unusual Acts of Devotion is beautifully directed and orchestrated by Trip Cullman. The set by Santo Loquasto is simply perfect — it looked so real you wanted to go on the roof too. Ben Stanton’s lighting are evocative of a summer night on a roof in New York, complete with overhead helicopters. John Gromado’s sound design captures the sounds of a New York night.

Unusual Acts of Devotion plays at the La Jolla Playhouse until June 28th.

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