The back, shoulders and arms of a graceful man eloquently move, even as his body art follows its own curving path. He’s James Hillman and his masculine beauty is admired from nearby. More than admiration. Surreptitiously watching neighbor Loyal Guerre lusts for this person he doesn’t yet know. It could turn into love.
As you continue to watch Brandon Williams personify James in Neighbors, Lovers and All the Others by Marie Amthor Schuett at Shelterbelt, how could you not relate to such love? Williams breathes sweet naturalness and earnest truth in his every word, projecting sensitivity and assured strength.
Loyal, who has written several successful operas, is blocked. He may have been trying to express passion through his music in the past, but this new thing has him so off-balance that he may fall.
So the story moves on. How can Loyal make contact with the real person whose muscular image is all that is known or seen? Then fate intervenes. Jenny Feinstein comes knocking, mistaking addresses. She has had something going with James. From there she and Loyal become intertwined in complicated ways and James becomes another part of the story.
Director Elizabeth Thompson keeps everything well-paced and engaging, getting truthful performances from her cast, though Schuett’s play feels like a work in progress.
Randall Stevens stays convincing and sincere as Loyal, but Schuett’s naïve conception didn’t give him much to work with. A successful composer would have more depth. Or, he might be eccentric. Loyal never talks about music and comes across as generically gay. You get no sense of his life outside his walls. And the only major exposition concerns his childhood with adoptive parents.
Jenny, in a lively and distinctive performance by Connie Lee, has more thorough definition, albeit as something of a stock character. Jenny is a well-off, no-longer-young socialite, and young James’ lover. She’s on the Board of Directors of Joffrey Ballet where he is the principal dancer. A famed name unexplored.
During much of the first act, as these three and Loyal’s sister Lee Lee interact, not much seems to lead anywhere. A lengthy party game scene among these potentially interesting people mostly shows them as trivial. Superfluous Lee Lee especially. It does turn out that something significant waits under the surface, emerging in the second act.
There the play goes into a new direction, as if by accident; the emphasis switches to 34-year-old Loyal’s painful emotions breaking through. So too do those of 52-year-old Jenny. In neither case because of James, who is not the catalyst.
There is music during the play, for example when the partiers shuffle and chatter through lots of LPs, although without much of a common musical thread. A few opera excerpts are heard, too, not Loyal’s. He also briefly ruminates about the parallels between opera and real life.
Advance information about this play said that there would be references to The Great Gatsby and Judy Garland. Those subjects barely surface, although there is a little bit of an effectively pointed recorded duet between Garland and Liza Minelli. Overall this makes it look as if there’s been recent re-writing. Not that intentions need be realized. What counts is what is there. And what is there needs better development.
Neighbors, Lovers and All the Others is performed through Aug. 6. Shelterbelt Theatre, 3225 California St. Thurs-Sat.: 8 p.m. Sun: 6 p.m. 8/6 : 2 p.m. Tickets: $15-$25 http://www.shelterbelt.org/