People who love to make sense of the world by categorizing are fond of saying that there are only seven basic plots. While this is perhaps true in the grand scale of things, on the granular level the variations are infinite. Take comedy, and more specifically the screwball comedy, a subset that achieved its greatest expression in the Hollywood films of the nineteen-thirties and forties with such gems as Bringing Up Baby, It Happened One Night, and Philadelphia Story. A man and a woman of opposite temperaments clash and bicker supported by a savvy writer’s witty dialogue until, no surprise, they find that they are soul mates.
Wendy Graf’s splendid new play, Unemployed Elephants—A Love Story, is classically true to form with Twenty-first Century flourishes. In an airport lounge, a jittery young woman (the delightful Brea Bee) sits agitated and restless as she fiddles with her smartphone. A handsome, bespectacled man (the instantly likeable Marshall McCabe), a bit older perhaps, enters and sits back-to-back by the woman. He is centered and smooth and she is brittle and tightly wound, for good reason. Of course, they are headed for the same destination, Myanmar in the monsoon season. He is on assignment for the television show Animal Planet working on a story about the elephants that have lost their jobs when the logging of the precious rain forest trees like teak and rosewood came to halt. The elephants that used to haul the trees through the forest miss their jobs and have become fat and unhappy. She is shattered and on the run after her fiancé dumped her on the eve of their wedding. Unemployed Elephants is a two-character play so of course they keep meeting each other, on the plane, in the immigration line, at the hotel, until she calms down and he becomes smitten. But neither character is exactly who they purport to be. And this is the fun as they deal with each other and the wonders of a strange, fascinating country with an alien culture.
Under the savvy direction of Maria Gobetti, Ms. Bee and Mr. McCabe are terrific together, getting the most out of the comedy while connecting to the audience with true emotion. They also serve as stagehands moving some of the scenic elements of Evan Bartoletti’s elegantly simple set design with graceful precision. Projections by designer Nick Santiago establish the various locales in which the action plays out including the famous Golden Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar. The creative staff includes lighting designer Carol Doehring, sound designer Noah Andrade, costume designer Meagan Evers, and graphic designer Jennifer Logan. And stage manager Sean Spencer deftly calls the cues.
Wendy Graf, whose play Please Don’t Ask About Becket was a hit in an Electric Footlights production at Sacred Fools in 2016, has crafted a tight script that I can foresee being produced at theatre companies across the country. It has the virtues of a small cast and, in the age of projection art and imaginative stagecraft, producible with a relatively small budget. I know some companies in Northern California that I plan to alert about this play.
Unemployed Elephants—A Love Story, produced by Tom Ormeny, Ms. Gobetti and Katie Witkowski, extends through April 29 at The Little Victory Theatre, 3324 W Victory Blvd. in Burbank.