A spanking new office building behind Union Station’s train tracks is a strange place to find oneself for a night of theater. Ushered through a blindingly white lobby, up the elevator to the sixth floor, greeted by a charming Irish lass asking you, “What’s the password?” Well, that’s the sort of night it was – equal parts improbable, uncomfortable, delightful, and unfinished.
Solas Nua is one of my favorite theater companies in DC. Known for their fearless dives into the Irish underbelly, Improbable Frequency is their first musical foray. There’s an enthusiastic cast backed by a live band in a space best described as cavernous. Sadly, preview night was unable to deliver the promised atmosphere of Todd Thrasher cocktails, vintage costumed extras and burlesque dancers working the crowd to create a 1940’s speakeasy – but when these elements are added (cross your fingers on that liquor license) it could help immeasurably to liven up what’s essentially a concrete skeleton.
Our guide through the musical action is Tristram Faraday, a cruciverbalist whose enthusiasm for and ability to solve crossword puzzles lands him a position as an unlikely spy in Ireland. He’s British, it’s World War II, and though the Irish are professed to be neutral there’s some suspicious codebreaking to be done. That alone could cause serious mayhem. But even stranger things are afoot – people randomly acting out bad puns, songs played on the radio weirdly affecting the weather. Throw in a mysterious double agent, a mad Austrian scientist, and the IRA! Tangling out the plot beyond that would spoil the big reveal, so suffice to say it all begins to resemble a parody of a Doctor Who episode.
This is the DC premiere of Improbable Frequency, written by Arthur Riordan with music by Bell Helicopter. The ensemble cast sings and hoofs their hearts out in such numbers as “Be Careful Not to Patronise the Irish,” but are working very hard against a soul-sucking space, its acoustics unforgiving. Eric Messner as Faraday is clearly game for anything (witness the ribald contortions of “The Bedtime Jig”); his energetic likeability and intelligence keep the audience connected to the chaotic action. As suffering ingenue Philomena O’Shea, Stacey Jackson has the pipes to fill the concrete cavern and the bright eyes to match. Also engaging are Chris Davenport and John Tweel, shape-shifting through roles with equal hilarity.
But with about thirty-five songs delivered in varying degrees of capability, you may find yourself singing along with “A Hymn to Drink” as Tweel’s saturnine Muldoon cries, “Can’t a man have a drink?!” My hope is that with the added speakeasy atmosphere, a party will spontaneously occur to rouse the bleak office concrete.
However, that may not help what ultimately is a problem with the material itself. Some of the songs are still with me – but in that way songs you don’t quite like keep reverberating through your head. It’s not the direction, or the actors. It’s the play, which could stand some judicious cutting of extraneous action, and the songs, whose melodies begin to border on the repetitious. Shifting in my cafe seat at times I longed for that elusive cocktail, and for the hard-hitting productions of previous Solas Nua outings. But you can’t fault them for an ambitious choice.