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Actor’s performance only highlight of ‘Things That Are Round’

Thais Menendez as Nina and Beth Hylton as Tetherly in Rep Stage's "Things That Are Round."
Thais Menendez as Nina and Beth Hylton as Tetherly in Rep Stage's "Things That Are Round." (Katie Simmons-Barth)

The aspiring opera singer named Nina has energy to spare. Watch her concoct one of the necklaces that she will swap for donations in an online-charity scam: As she strings beads, sitting on the floor, she flashes a smile at the scam’s fictional beneficiary. It’s a bright, gracious smile, even if you can see impatience simmer around the edges.

Thais Menendez’s funny, nuanced, grounded depiction of Nina is a strength of “Things That Are Round,” a world premiere two-actor comedy at Rep Stage. Unfortunately, her performance is virtually the show’s only strength. Written by Callie Kimball, “Things That Are Round” is a work of high whimsy that never registers as more than contrivance. Despite details that hint at profundity, the ultra-quirky narrative and dialogue never provide a satisfactory window onto deeper meaning, in terms of either character or existential truth. And Lola B. Pierson’s direction only emphasizes the work’s exasperating artifice.

It is to Menendez’s credit, then, that she turns in such a convincing portrait of Nina, a wannabe artist who is confident, irreverent, and narcissistic. After Nina lands a lucrative babysitting job, she takes advantage of her new employer, Tetherly (Beth Hylton), an insecure, lonely dentist who is writing a PhD thesis on calculus and monads. As the bond between the two women strengthens — over stories, opinions (“Beige carpet means death is near”) and Tetherly’s apocalypse survival checklist — their kooky exchanges turn alternately affectionate and hostile.

Kimball doesn’t make Tetherly much more than a construct. There doesn’t seem to be sufficient rationale — whether psychological, poetic or philosophical — behind the character’s oddball behaviors, like the show-and-tell she does with her patients’ extracted teeth. Hylton doesn’t succeed in filling in the outlines of this cipher, and the actress isn’t helped by some stagy pieces of blocking, such as a sequence in which she edges bizarrely around the periphery of the understated living-room set. (Jenny Male is resident movement and fight director. Daniel Ettinger is scenic designer. Sarah Tundermann’s lighting adds exclamation points to the story’s anti-naturalistic aspects.)

Some of the play’s touches are admittedly piquant — the children’s toys that rain from the ceiling at one point, for instance, or the allusions to all the household items that mysteriously break after Nina is hired. But too often, the loopiness feels forced.

In a different play, the central relationship might be a moving example of how dissimilar people can help and challenge each other. But because the story’s premise, and the character of Tetherly, in particular, never seem real — even within the parameters of the play’s deliberately eccentric universe — we never reach that kind of payoff. “Things That Are Round” is overstocked with things that are cutesy and understocked with revelation.

Things That Are Round, by Callie Kimball. Directed by Lola B. Pierson; costume design, Heather C. Jackson; composition and sound design, Sarah O’Halloran; properties, Amy Kellett. 90 minutes. Tickets: $10-$40. Through Nov. 18 at Rep Stage at Howard Community College’s Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia.