Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
From their droll exchange we learn they have worked at the Services Corporation for several years but barely know one another. Deadpan Margaret is perturbed that a grocery store clerk asked her "What are you?," an indeterminate question possibly about her ethnicity but also indicative of the uncertainty that challenges each of Davis's seven characters. Punctuated with awkward pauses and increasingly bizarre personal revelations by Val, accented by random gurgles from the water cooler, their conversation goes nowhere. A third employee, Anita (Shonita Joshi), stops by on her first day in the human resources department and provides startling suggestions about how they should conduct themselves.
In the second scene, we find Margaret at her second job as a shift manager at The Burg, taking overnight orders at the fast-food drive-up window, which materializes with a flip of a wall block to reveal a service counter. Her fellow worker, Bobby (Michael Lepore), whose task is sandwich prep, has a laughably hesitant conversation with her, nervous about crossing lines of propriety with a fellow worker. He expresses a desire to have more responsibility, and when a difficult customer shows up–on a scooter with headlights, a comic incarnation of a car–Margaret hands over her headset. Of course, he's not quite prepared for the task.
The 90-minute production has a series of scenes that add more characters. Roxanne (Dwandra Nickole Lampkin) is the difficult customer, fully of nosy suggestions. Dex (Josh Odor) is Val's unlikely Monday night sex partner, full of mansplaining philosophy. Their bed folds down from another wall section. Later we meet Gary (Bill Timoney), who services malfunctioning copy machines that Margaret struggles to maintain. He's near retirement and wonders what will become of him. Over the course of the play's storytelling, Margaret learns more about her "origin," information she doesn't expect or fully welcome, but comes to embrace.
The production has been adroitly staged by Joanie Schultz, the Playhouse's associate artistic director. She's had her eye on playwright Davis (who premiered two other scripts this season in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia) and on this script even before she joined the Playhouse's artistic team a year ago. Schultz has worked as a freelance director based in Chicago with a national reputation for shepherding new works. Origin Story is a fine example of the kind of full-spectrum productions that Cincinnati theatergoers can surely expect from her.
The cast are flawless as the seven quirky characters. While Danan's portrait of Margaret borders on sullen, we see moments when yearning breaks through. As Val, Hogg is quirky in the extreme, serving as a catalyst who drives change in others while pushing her own boundaries. Joshi makes Anita the most common-sense character, but she has her quirks, too, and her interactions with Val and Margaret open her up to some different perspectives of her own. Lepore's twitchy rendition of Bobby with lots of wild arm gestures is just right for this nervous character who's seeking to be his best self. Odor's verbose relationship with Val is beyond strange, and when he makes a weird connection with Bobby, it's both humorous and oddly insightful. Lampkin and Timoney, as pushy Roxanne and chatty Gary, are slightly more caricatured, but they each have a touching moments in the play's final moments as they delve with more insight into personal relationships.
In a program profile of the playwright, Davis says his intention was to write "a play in which every scene was delightful." He did so by crafting exchanges that explore with wry humor various themes including race, identity, work, debt, family, and so on.
Scenic designer Chelsea M. Warren's flexible set makes for quick transitions from scene to scene, complemented by Heather Gilbert's lighting design. There's a surprising quick change of locale for the final scene, which underscores the fact that the characters are on the brink of new decisions and directions.
This play is a comedy with intentions. It has a heartwarming ending with characters who discover new paths of personal and familial connections leading them to quite literally taking leaps into something new and affirming. It's a very skillful piece of writing, brought to life by rich portrayals of a collection of memorable characters.
Origin Story runs through June 25, 2023, at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, 962 Mt. Adams Circle, Eden Park, adjacent to Mt. Adams, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit cincyplay.com or call 513-421-3888.