November 9, 2016

Romantic Comedy “Out of the City” Opens Passage Theatre Season, With Focus on Middle-Age, Marriage, Friendships, and Mortality


BIRTHDAY SURPRISES: (L to R) Matt (Grant Shaud), Jill (June Ballinger), Carol (Leslie Ayvazian), and Dan (Ken Land) leave the city for a weekend at a bed-and-breakfast in the Poconos to celebrate Carol’s 60th birthday, and they find themselves in unexpected, unsettling emotional territory in Passage Theatre’s production of Leslie Ayvazian’s “Out of the City,” playing through November 20 at the Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton. (Photo by Michael Goldstein)

At least since A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s “out-of-the-city” play set in ancient Athens and the surrounding forest, leaving the structured, rule-bound urban world for a sojourn in the unconstrained world of nature has been a risky proposition, bringing about all sorts of romantic upheavals, shifting relationships, and surprising transformations of identity.

Leslie Ayvazian’s Out of the City (2014), a sort of mid-summer night’s dream for two contemporary middle-aged couples spending a weekend in the Poconos, is no exception. Produced by Passage Theatre and playing at Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton through November 20, this very funny, appealing, and somewhat unsettling romantic comedy is full of sharp, credible dialogue, shifting relationships, and constant, often unexpected questioning of marriage, friendship, gender, and — not surprisingly — what comes next when you’re 60 years old, you’ve been married for more than 30 years, and you’re confronting your own mortality.

The thoroughly professional, veteran cast of four, under the sure-handed direction of Murphy Davis, is excellent. Their comic timing is flawless, and the balance of comedy and serious drama works effectively to deliver 80 uninterrupted minutes of engaging, entertaining theater. All possess impressive acting credits from TV to Broadway, Off-Broadway, and regional theater.

A widely produced author of eight full-length and seven one-act plays, Ms. Ayvazian displays her gift for humorous dialogue, along with serious, sympathetic, credible characterization, as both playwright and performer (here in the role of the birthday girl Carol). She appeared last spring in McCarter Theatre’s world premiere production of All the Days.

Out of the City takes place over one weekend in the living room of a bed-and-breakfast. Jill (June Ballinger), an outdoors woman and adventuress who’s always traveling to exotic spots, has arranged this sojourn in the Poconos for the birthday of her friend Carol (Ms. Ayvazian). Jill’s husband Dan (Ken Land) and Carol’s husband Matt (Grant Shaud) go along, more or less willingly.

Carol is a city girl, edgy, outspoken, somewhat out of her element in the Poconos. The fact that she suffers from occasional disequilibrium caused by dislodged crystals in her ear is emblematic of a certain uncertainty and insecurity at this point in her life. The two women present an interesting contrast in character, but both clearly care for their husbands, and both face difficulties and doubts in their marriages. The characterizations are three-dimensional, and their relationship, as it develops over the course of the weekend, is intriguing.

The male characters are less fully developed, more stereotypical, but very funny. Matt, who has taken a fall and injured his arm, is determined to prove his masculinity. In one humorous scene, despite Carol’s protestations, he obsessively throws rock after rock, trying to hit a log in the middle of the lake. Dan, a high school basketball coach who has issues with his wife’s constant traveling, is also trying to connect in a marital relationship that has gotten off track.

Despite occasional moments and lines that don’t quite ring true, these four characters come across as delightfully human and appealing in their struggles to understand themselves and to connect with each other. Despite, or maybe because of, eccentricities in their personality and behavior, it is not hard to care about and relate closely to these individuals.

Set design by Susan DeConcini, with lighting by Paul Kilsdonk, provides a realistic depiction of the slightly run-down bed-and-breakfast, with worn wicker furniture, baskets, and an eclectic array of tchotchkes, including a small, emblematic statue of Cupid, throughout the room. It also evokes a certain enchanted forest aura, with seven filmy, colorfully-lit curtain pillars and swirling ribbons hanging from above. This “out of the city” world is clearly a different place from the workaday world of the normal lives that these characters have left behind for two days.

Costume design by Robin I. Shane and sound by Michael Antoniewicz complement the other production elements and skillfully enhance characterizations of these four and creation of this sometimes disconcerting world.

There are no profound messages, no cataclysmic actions emerging from this play, but as various characters observe, “something out of the ordinary” takes place here. “Things are unsettling. Everything here is a little unsettling,” Dan remarks.

Out of the City delivers a rich dose of humor and more than a few thoughts worth pondering. It also provides a delightful evening, well worth the 20 minute trip from Princeton. The 100-seat Mill Hill Playhouse, a renovated church just off route one in Trenton, is a perfect venue for this intimate, appealing show.

Leslie Ayvazian’s “Out of the City” will run through November 20 at the Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street in Trenton. Call (609) 392-0766 or visit for tickets and information.