T.J. Edwards understands something about good play writing: Like the iceberg, nine-tenths of it lies under the surface. What a character says is not necessarily what he means or even what's really on his mind. Words can be deceptive signposts -- pointing us north when the road actually veers to the south.
In "New York Mets," Edwards shows us the comedy and confusion that result when language fails to do its bidding and human feelings and aspirations are left high and dry. The work -- part of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's current three-play repertory -- is not perfect, but it's easily the most satisfying effort by a local playwright in a couple of seasons.
The stylistic influence of David Mamet still weighs on Edwards, but not so heavily as it did in an earlier play, "Bus Boy." Like Mamet, he has a predilection for little people, whose schemes for self-enrichment blow up in their faces. But a distinctive bittersweetness is beginning to creep into his writing. He cares for the misguided characters in "New York Mets" and caring keeps them from degenerating into outright wackos.
The play is built on a daisy chain of unrequited love. Phil, the roly-poly proprietor of Phil's Typewriter Repair Shop, has convinced himself that he's going to marry Rosie, a minor poet who supplements her meager income by serving as the in-house typist. Rosie is quick to shrug off his advances. She may be a lesbian; Ernie, the would-be novelist who uses the repair shop as his office, claims she is. But then Ernie, part dreamer and part con man, has his reasons for saying so. He's in love with Phil.
None of this is in the foreground, however. It seeps through -- an ink blot slowly spreading over another cockamamie day at work. Phil tinkers away at broken typewriters and pontificates about philosophy and business. Rosie runs out for coffee and fruit pies when she's not despairing over the rotten manuscript she'll never finish typing by nightfall. Ernie generally gets underfoot and then totally disrupts any semblance of order with the announcement that he has a contract with a major publishing house.
But under the surface of what presents itself as a loose screwball comedy, tensions are knotting and reknotting. For all the pride these characters take in understanding and controlling words, basic truths never get stated. "Sometimes the nail needs to be driven home," proclaims Phil. But nobody ever hits the nail on the head. They hit all around it and sometimes they hit their thumbs. The misunderstandings and self-delusions grow, unchecked.
Some of the verbal confusions Edwards has orchestrated are patently forced; the characters seem to be doing their version of that Abbott and Costello routine, "Who's on First?" But more often, he finds the helter-skelter surrealism that lies in the ramblings and overlappings of seemingly everyday speech. And Ernie Meier, making an impressive directorial debut, never loses sight of the emotional undercurrents. "New York Mets" builds to an explosion, fueled as much by what the characters fail to say as by what they do say. (The title refers to baseball chatter that crops up when the real conversations stall.)
Edwards rewrote an earlier version of the play specifically for members of the Woolly Mammoth acting company, and it fits wonderfully. Michael Willis has the bluff and hearty confidence of the overweight Phil as well as the insecurity and the self-loathing. Grover Gardner -- looking like a Damon Runyon tipster -- makes Ernie both a flamboyant nut and a colorless nobody. Nancy Robinette, unfailingly droll as the poet/typist, is also intriguingly secretive, while Gra'inne Cassidy scores in the minor role of a flustered autograph seeker.
Ronald J. Olsen's set, a ramshackle office, and Steve Summers' lighting are right in line with the fast rising standards at the Woolly Mammoth. "New York Mets" will alternate through May with the equally praiseworthy "Christmas on Mars." Then both plays will be joined by Terrence McNally's "And Things That Go Bump in the Night." One doesn't want to jinx the enterprise by wishing for three in a row. On the other hand, the Woolly Mammoth is clearly on a roll.
New York Mets, by T.fs,1 J. Edwards, directed by Ernie Meier. Set, Ronald J. Olsen; lighting, Steve Summers; costumes, Jane Schloss Phelan. With Michael Willis, Nancy Robinette, Grover Gardner, Gra'inne Cassidy. In repertory at Woolly Mammoth Theatre through July 31.