It does seem inevitable when the rich young man named Mortimer Mortimer asks the monk parakeet to dance. Nattily attired in a check suit and bow tie — and politely overlooking the fact that a woman has recently careened by on a rolling desk chair, pretending to practice her swimming strokes — Mortimer extends the invitation with courtesy. Soon, to the strains of a 1920s song, he’s fox-trotting with the bird — portrayed, in this case, by a bright green feather duster.
The whimsy in Philip Dawkins’s “Failure: A Love Story” is so fervent and relentless that you can occasionally see certain plot twists — such as this dance moment — coming. But if the kooky choices occasionally feel forced, there’s also an impressive boldness to this play-with-music, currently on view in an energetic, inventive, occasionally slightly rough-hewn Hub Theatre incarnation.
If arch playfulness governs the storytelling in Dawkins’s comedy about the love lives of three Jazz Age sisters, it’s also the mode of choice in director Matt Bassett’s production, which unspools on an atmospheric, sepia-toned set designed by Betsy Muller. A piano, two traveling trunks and a folding screen etched with a cityscape help conjure up the screwball world of the Fail siblings. After the deaths of their parents in a fluke boating accident, Gerty, Jenny June and Nelly Fail (Carolyn Kashner, Tia Shearer and Maggie Erwin) keep the family’s Chicago clock-repair business running, while their brother, John N. (Chris Stinson), trains to be a veterinarian. Death is coming for the sisters — we learn this in the play’s initial sentences — but first the girls have to cope with the attentions of the charming, moneyed Mortimer Mortimer (Michael Kevin Darnall).
Told in narrative style — with the actors relaying bits of narration, when they’re not specifically channeling characters — “Failure” has the rhythms of a short story. But it offers considerable scope for bits of low-tech theatricality. For instance, with a whistle, a hand-percussion device and their voices, the performers frequently create the sounds of the timepieces in the clock-repair shop. Holding a guitar by the neck and letting the instrument pendulum, a musician and chorus-member figure (Rose McConnell) occasionally depict a grandfather clock. At other points, McConnell manipulates a feather boa so it becomes Moses, John N.’s pet python.
The actors fling themselves exuberantly into the portraits of their hyper-quirky characters. Dressed in an apple-green 1920s outfit (Maria Vetsch designed the apt costumes), Kashner does a particularly nice job capturing the hauteur of Gerty, who often communicates in fast-talking old-movie tones. Stinson is funny, yet endearing, as he radiates the ragamuffin shyness of the gloomy John N., and Shearer amps up the gusto of the champion swimmer Jenny June.
The production’s musical dimension is less successful. The play is designed to incorporate early-20th-century songs (such as “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”) as well as pastiche songs with lyrics by playwright Dawkins. In the Hub production, D.C.-based sound designer Patrick Calhoun wrote the tunes for most of the Dawkins songs. (He also handled the show’s sound design.) As performed by members of the cast, with McConnell accompanying on guitar or piano, these numbers often sound muddy or tuneless. A vaguely operatic song in which Mortimer vents jealousy (Darnall sort of sings, and sort of talks, his way through this one) is an ear-sore.
The musical shortcomings doubtless reflect limited-budget realities for Hub, a company that has displayed an impressive propensity for showcasing new, recent or lesser-known scripts (“Failure” had its world premiere in Chicago in 2012). Another offering in this line, “Failure” may sometimes feel overly cutesy, but in general you have to admire Dawkins’s determination to tackle age-old themes — mortality, loss, love — in an unusual, monk-parakeet-bedecked manner.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Failure: A Love Story
by Philip Dawkins. Directed by Matt Bassett; lighting design, Catherine Girardi; props, Suzanne Maloney; technical director, Christian Sullivan. About 100 minutes. Tickets: $20-$30. Through May 18 at the John Swayze Theatre (at the New School of Northern Virginia), 9431 Silver King Court, Fairfax. Visit www.thehubtheatre.org.