Holiday connections to B Street Theatre’s holiday play “Not In the Stars” are tenuous. Characters reference the cold outside. One wears a Christmas-tree-green coat. That’s it.
But a warm sense of tradition still permeates this highly entertaining romantic comedy, or at least the circumstances of its staging. First produced in 1994, “Stars” played a vital role in B Street’s history.
Written and directed by B Street artistic director Buck Busfield, “Stars” debuted as a one-act showcase featuring interns including Kurt Johnson. Busfield revived the play the next year with Johnson and two other actors who would become B Street veterans, Elisabeth Nunziato and David Pierini.
The trio waived their salaries for the 1995 production, a successful fundraiser that helped keep the still-young B Street Theatre alive. The same actors reprise their roles in the new revival of “Stars,” which opened Sunday. For its holiday run, Busfield successfully expanded the play to two acts.
Though Nunziato and Johnson no doubt pulled off playing New York City blind-daters Yvonne and Clare in the mid-1990s, Busfield’s play seems better suited to the actors’ current ages, now more middle than college. The defense mechanisms that Yvonne and Clare (short for Clarence) display derive from heartbreak and experience.
Nunziato lends book editor Yvonne the commanding neuroses of a Neil Simon heroine. Yvonne has been married, and burned, a few times. One husband left her for her best friend.
Yvonne, imbued with Nunziato’s crack comic timing, tells Clare she can’t remember which husband it was. But it was devastating.
Yvonne decides when Clare enters her apartment (a minimalist set functions ably as home and restaurant interiors) that he is not what she calls her “essence mate.” She has preempted his possible rejection of her by rejecting him.
Judging by Johnson’s arms-crossed defensive posture and too-hearty laugh, Clare, an actuary who calculates risk for a living, is wary himself. Especially after Yvonne opens with a dismissal.
They should call it a night, but each appears able to read the other’s subtext, inching forward from there. Nunziato gives Yvonne hints of vulnerability and empathy that Clare picks up on.
Clare’s attempts to match his date’s wit, though sometimes stiff, also clearly show he’s interested. Yvonne sees through their verbal sparring to that interest.
Pierini appears in the first act as a telephone repairman and a waiter/wannabe writer who slings bad metaphors between courses at the restaurant where Yvonne and Clare go on their date. Editor Yvonne calls the waiter a hack, but Pierini, delivering the play’s best comic line, proves the guy’s cleverness.
Though the play is set in present day, the first act reflects its 1994 origins. Publishing still is a king in New York, aspiring writers toil on novels rather than blogs, and a subplot exists around a land line. But rather than seem dated, these callbacks offer a nice sense of continuity, underscoring the long B Street tenures of Busfield and his acting trio, all of them still creatively vital.
The joy of the second act lies in how Busfield references the first without duplicating any aspect.
But the second act does move the play into the present, with laptops and cellphones in evidence, while also showing off the range of its stalwart cast. Nunziato stops commanding, becoming quietly determined as a character trying not to be bulldozed by someone else’s preconceptions.
Johnson, playing a new character who is more relaxed and self-confident than Clare, evokes actor Jeff Daniels. Funny, Johnson didn’t resemble Daniels in the first act. It’s all in the bearing.
Pierini fleshes out a first-act character, breathing sympathetic life into a guy who is overbearing and obnoxious but ultimately well-meaning.
Neither act is profound nor attempts to do more than inspire laughs and deliver a few relationship truths. But in Busfield’s and his cast’s abilities to honor and also refresh 19-year-old material, you see why B Street has been known for quality for so long.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.