Photo by Matthew Tippins
Cast members Sara Grant, Irene Adjan, and Niki Fridh act out a comical scene from Island City Stage’s production of Tracy Jones.
By AARON KRAUSE
Comedy can be an effective tool for playwrights to deliver messages to audiences. Indeed, once we start at least smiling, or chuckling, we let our guard down. Then, a writer can hammer us with lessons and serious themes.
But rest assured, playwright Stephen Kaplan will not strike you nearly as hard as one of his characters gets clobbered in his new comedy, Tracy Jones. And don’t worry about the injured character. In reality, she suffers nothing close to a concussion after a swinging door slams into her face in the sometimes-farcical, always delightful play. Instead of hammering us with a message, it gently taps us with a useful reminder about one of our most basic needs.
Tracy Jones, a roughly 90-minute play without intermission, is running through June 18 in a laugh-filled and believable production by Island City Stage (ICS). Its intimate theater’s location is in Wilton Manors, near Ft. Lauderdale.
Kaplan is an award-winning writer with numerous pieces staged off-Broadway and in regional theaters. In Tracy Jones, he does not have anything groundbreaking to say. Rather, consider his light but not sugary piece a refresher from what we learned during the worst of the pandemic. Namely, people need to directly connect with each other in person. Sure, Zoom helps, but it’s only a temporary fix. When the titular character says, “I just couldn’t do another Zoom room,” she no doubt echoes many of us who eventually grew weary of the technology.
Through Tracy Jones, set during the present, Kaplan also reminds us that we need to feel like we matter and are useful. We never want to feel like we are just taking up space.
That is just how Tracy must feel. For some time, she has worked in a bank. Specifically, she opens new accounts on the computer for customers. To her, she has a boring, too-common name. She performs a dull, meaningless job, and lives a joyless, lonely life. But give her credit for trying to cope with her circumstances.
Specifically, Tracy throws a party for every other woman named Tracy Jones in the state in which she lives (the setting is not specific, perhaps to suggest the story’s universality).
Tracy has rented out the back “party room” of Jones Street Bar and Grill, the Place for Wings (and Things). It is a local chain restaurant of sorts. Tracy has prepared games and a PowerPoint presentation featuring facts and statistics about the name “Tracy Jones.” Also, she has ordered plenty of food and drinks. And, yes, she will have nametags for everyone.
The play’s premise alone is humorous, but Kaplan has also made the restaurant a source of comedy. For instance, the business has gone amusingly overboard with its safety protocols. Also, employees use fancy, unfamiliar terms and acronyms. Perhaps the playwright means to contrast them with common names such as “Jones Street” and “Tracy Jones.”
Certainly, the titular character has meticulously planned the party. For instance, in addition to posting on Facebook, she used “skywriting” to advertise.
Although the party doesn’t turn out to be the bash she’d hoped for, Tracy and the other characters find themselves better off than they were the day before. Why? They connected with at least one other human being and enjoyed camaraderie.
As well as reminding us about the power of connection and laughter, Tracy Jones celebrates language and literature. Also, the play makes us realize that as bad as we may feel, we are not alone and there is always hope.
Ultimately, Kaplan presents us with a relatable protagonist. Sure, she has her faults, and her shortcomings explain why Tracy has had a hard time connecting with people. Still, we feel for her because we sense the depths of her loneliness. She also seems genuine in her desire to connect with others. And if we are lonely, or know someone who is, we will see ourselves or that other person through the play’s characters.
ICS is presenting Tracy Jones as part of the National New Play Network’s (NNPN) Rolling World Premiere program. A rolling premiere happens when three NNPN-member theater companies all agree to produce a play within a defined time span. This program allows the playwright to hone and refine their piece with three different sets of directors, cast members, and audiences.
In Tracy Jones’ case, it has run at CenterStage Theatre at the JCC in Rochester, N.Y., and Williamstown Theatre in Williamstown, Mich.
“The work Stephen did during those previous productions has led to the finalized script that you are seeing tonight,” ICS Artistic Director Andy Rogow wrote in the program.
That script features verbal humor, physical comedy (think the Three Stooges), and enough serious and touching material to offer us a satisfying emotional theatrical experience. Tracy Jones is a play with substance, not just empty calories.
Rogow directs ICS’s production with comic energy but leaves enough room for the play’s serious themes to land. The director guides an energetic quartet of talented performers. They nail comic timing, droll farce, and deliver sincere performances blessed with spontaneity.
While the characters share basically the same name, the actors create four distinct, sympathetic, and vulnerable characters who are desperate due to their loneliness.
Niki Fridh portrays the main character – the one who throws the party. Fridh makes us feel the depths of her character’s loneliness and imbues her with believable nerves and determination. We also sense her stubbornness. Chances are, that trait played a role in the character’s failure to connect with people.
Meanwhile, Irene Adjan imbues Tracy “Eleanor” Jones with affability, elegance, and enthusiasm. But Adjan also injects her character with an intensity that can be off-putting.
Matthew Buffalo portrays Tracy “Mackenzie” Jones with convincing uncertainty. The actor presents a man who is lost and trying to find his way. Also, Buffalo’s voice and facial expressions betray sincere sounding emotional pain during a heart-wrenching monologue.
Sara Grant portrays Jilli, the “Personal-Party-Server/Host-With-The-Most. Part of the comedy stems from Grant’s ability to switch seamlessly and quickly between a charming cheeriness and sternness.
While ICS’s stage is narrow and shallow, scenic and lighting designer Ardean Landhuis fills the set with impressive detail. The set is so busy and bright you do not know where to look first. However, the set is inviting and light-colored, befitting a comedy. Together with food items, you will find bright yellow walls covered with beer posters, game boards, and various oddities that enhance the production’s comic aura.
Landhuis also designed the realistic lighting, while W. Emil White clothes the actors in character-defining costumes.
Sound designer David Hart helps to ensure we can understand the actors.
Tracy Jones deserves a long theatrical life. It is an amusing, empathy-building comedy that makes you feel better about yourself.
Tracy Jones runs through June 18 at Island City Stage at Wilton Theatre Factory. The address is 2304 N. Dixie Highway in Wilton Manors. Performances are at 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $40-$45. Call (954) 928-9800 or go to www.islandcitystage.org.
Photo by Matthew Tippins
Cast members Irene Adjan, Matthew Buffalo, Sara Grant and Niki Fridh act out a scene.