Will Coleman’s literate, thoughtful one-act Helvetica is having its world premiere at this year’s Planet Connections Theatre Festivity, a socially conscious downtown arts festival. Lovely writing and solid acting make the play shine; but an unorthodox structure prevents it from achieving a dramatic arc, so it fizzles out before its 90 minutes are through.
Three actresses play the title character as, in turn, a child, a mature adult, and an old woman. Named after a typeface, Helvetica appropriately enough becomes a famous author of children’s books. Her life story itself is about stories, and how although they are made up, they reflect life’s fundamental truths better than mere facts ever can.
But though this storyteller can touch generations of children with her writing, she can’t make deep connections with other adults. A realist as a child, she becomes a bitterly cynical grownup, then a lonely old lady.
Coleman tells Helvetica’s story by jumping to and fro in time. In one scene, the successful author stands uncomfortably about at a publishing industry party; in another, she’s a young girl, bored on a fishing trip with her father; in still another, old Helvetica sits in a doctor’s office awaiting the results of a brain MRI; and so on. Thus bouncing about in time, the action held my interest for a while. I made eager efforts to keep up, drawn in by the colorful writing – alternately realistic and poetic – and by the deft humor and engaging characters, including Helvetica’s beloved stuffed teddy bear Myron (Sven Haabeth), who also serves as a jolly but wise narrator.
Most of the scenes sparkle on their own. On a blind date that’s going nowhere, adult Helvetica and a straitlaced Wall Streeter agree to cast off the usual surface personae of people seeking mates and instead come clean about what they can’t stand. Myron howls in pain when, fully grown, she finally banishes him to the attic. Little-girl Helvetica gets a fateful bedtime story from her despairing, suicidal mother. In a glorious centerpiece, the respected author reads us her most controversial book, a Pinocchio-like fable about a music-box ballerina and an insensitive man who uses up her innocent love.
Coleman says much that’s wise and incisive through his script. The cast does fine work with challenging material, missing the focus on no more than a line here and there. Director Brock Harris Hill is his usual dexterous self with a minimalist set, and it doesn’t get much more minimal than this – a couple of chairs and crates and that’s it.
But after a while, lacking a sustained dramatic arc, the whole endeavor loses focus. The effort it requires of the audience to repeatedly refocus and reinvest attention grows wearying.
Before Helvetica was a typeface, it was the Latin name for Switzerland, a country famous for its neutrality – the ultimate non-joiner. So it’s a perfect moniker for Coleman’s dissociated heroine. Maybe it’s even the “undiscover’d country” she sets out for at the end, with all three of her selves – all four, if you count the indefatigable Myron – finally united.