Playwright Erin Mallon may be a newcomer. But her The Net Will Appear shows a mastery of storytelling, character development, and honest sentiment without artificial sweetening. Trouble and heartache, she vividly shows us, can touch life at any stage – at its beginning, near its end. But so can redemption through human contact – through, in a word, love. The message is an old one, but the medium, on a simple set at 59e59 Theaters, is fresh, beautifully played, and absolutely charming.
The setup is fairy-tale minimalist. Bernard (Richard Masur), a 75-year-old heavy drinker, and his nine-year-old logorrheic neighbor Rory (Eve Johnson) “meet cute” on their respective roof decks. Striking up an unlikely friendship, they reveal – unwittingly in Bernard’s case, helplessly in Rory’s – the raw tenderness of their respective lives.
Bernard habitually climbs out to his deck with what he agrees to call for Rory a “Jim Beam juice.” He’s trying to escape problems in the house that we gradually come to understand. Through the window he talks gingerly to his unseen, unheard wife. Is Irma really inside? But if this is a ghost story, it turns out to be one rooted in generational woes all too real for many of us.
Rory, meanwhile, is on her deck to escape a chaotic home life. For her age, she possesses an unusually deep emotional intelligence, but Mallon’s witty script and Johnson’s remarkable performance make it believable. Rory’s wits are as sharp as the red dot of the laser pointer with which she harasses Bernard at the start. But she’s treading water in a lake of uncertainty, with an emotionally troubled mother, a disappeared father (“Dads don’t break up with their daughters.” “Mine did.”), a baby sister, and a stepdad she’s been told she should think of as a “bonus dad. Why, Bernard asks, is Rory wearing a Catholic school uniform if she’s Jewish? Because, she parrots, Catholic school is “the best place for me right now.”
Much later, after months of communicating, he’s comfortable enough to reveal to Rory the great loss in his life. It’s one of many beautiful moments. As Rory, Johnson exquisitely conveys a troubled haze of sympathy and helplessness before suggesting he see a therapist. “I talk to a lady once a week now. She says things like ‘you deserve love’ and ‘it’s ok to cry.’ Her office smells like tuna, but she’s pretty nice.” Bernard scoffs at the idea. His situation, his wife’s condition, has become unspeakably sad. But he speaks it, thanks to Rory, and gains some strength thereby.
Rory’s playfulness and perceptivity, both of which the indomitable child sustains across the uncrossable gap between their roofs, soften “Nard” up and transform him into a friend. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by a stunning sustained performance by a child actor. But the wonderful Richard Masur – who’s acted in countless screen and stage productions (and whom I still think of as David from One Day at a Time)– also makes crusty old Bernard easy to fall for, in a crafty and deeply felt performance.
Witness the way it secretly tickles him when Rory imitates his old-man getting-up-from-a-chair groan. Or the way he reluctantly but then enthusiastically scratches her head across the empty space that separates them. And when the two must finally go their separate ways, they mark their parting with the most touching of gestures, though they’ve never physically touched.
The Net Will Appear is directed with economy and sensitivity by Mark Cirnigliaro and presented by The Collective NY and Hoboken’s Mile Square Theater. It’s a powerful, intimate piece of theater you won’t soon forget. See it at 59e59 Theaters through December 30. Tickets are available online.