It seems unlikely for two new plays as different as Deb Margolin’s prickly solo show on illness, “8 Stops,” and Helen Murray Pafumi’s smooth, interfaith, romantic comedy, “Redder Blood,” to have so much in common. Yet both start bumpy and finish strong and wise; both thrive on a winning (yet contrasting) offbeat wit. Both are feel-good 90-minute shows.
Also in common:
●Autobiography. Margolin, the New York downtown theater artist best known here for “Imagining Madoff” at Theater J, has suffered from Hogdkin’s lymphoma. She carries her script with her — memory loss is a side effect — but she almost never uses it as she describes raising her son, who fears death.
[Margolin explains “Imagining Madoff”]
Pafumi was raised by a Jewish mother and by an Irish Catholic father who converted to Islam when she was 10. She fictionalizes this in “Redder Blood,” but those are the contours of the kooky family we see. When Sadie, the main figure, brings her new Christian boyfriend home to meet the family — well, it’s as funny and introspective as the identity politics dinner party of Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced” is explosive. (No further comparisons will be made between that unsettling drama and this endearing comedy.)
● Suburbs: “Redder Blood” is at the intimate home base (about 50 seats) of the Hub Theatre in Fairfax, a troupe run by Pafumi. “8 Stops,” which Margolin performed last year in Manhattan, is at the small Randolph Road Theater in Wheaton, presented by the Unexpected Stage Company. Go figure.
● Humor. Margolin is funny as hell when she lets her angry humor loose. She’s a subversive Bohemian, so the takes on her unexpectedly tony New Jersey enclave are sharp. So, too, are her medical barbs, like the one where she reckons Dilaudid is a combination of “deluded” and “defrauded.”
Pafumi generates laughs via the oddity of her Muslim-convert father (a sober Michael Kramer) — on paper the most interesting figure in the play, but the least developed — and a quirky daughter who’s a little overdrawn (though played with superb mischief by Megan Graves). Better are the exploratory gags between Sadie (the always wonderful Jenna Sokolowski) and her Christian blind date, Spencer (an appealingly earnest Jonathan Feuer). Jokes are great icebreakers, and their rapport is delicious.
● Performance. Margolin’s clearly a pro. You can see it in the way she engineers the piece with director Jay Wahl, working the tiny white platform stage that’s neatly divided between a stark medical area and a kid’s bedroom. She tells her stories with frustration and bite, and with shrewd poetic accumulation. She ends with a story that explains the title, a memorable homily on seizing the day.
Sokolowski (recently Laura in “The Glass Menagerie” at Ford’s Theatre) is utterly fetching in her low-key role — low-key, that is, for a woman whose parents are splitting and who talks to God (voiced by a slightly giggly Dawn Ursula). Directed by Gregg Henry, Sokolowski lightly and absorbingly handles the role’s troubled thoughtfulness.
● Benevolence. These are big-hearted shows on the broadest of themes, and let’s be clear: Both get off to worrisome meandering starts. But they know where they’re going. Like Margolin, Pafumi ends with a parable that explains her peculiar title, and the story of “redder blood” generates an insight that helps Sadie bridge the religious and (more to the point) emotional fractures that crack her family apart.
These shows don’t preach; they probe, and they feel good because they don’t try too hard. They also share this: At bottom, they feel real.
Redder Blood by Helen Murray Pafumi. Directed by Gregg Henry. Scenic design, Kristen Morgan; costumes, Jane Fink; lights, Ken Wills; projections, Patrick Lord; sound design and composition, Matthew Nielson. With Vanessa Bradchulis and Carlo Saldana. About 90 minutes. Through July 31 at the Hub Theatre, 9431 Silver King Ct., Fairfax. Tickets $15-$30. Call 800-494-8497 or visit thehubtheatre.org.
8 Stops written and performed by Deb Margolin. Directed by Jay Wahl. Set, William T. Fleming; lights, Andrew Dodge; sound design, Christopher Mark Colucci. About 90 minutes. Through July 31 at the Randolph Road Theater, 4010 Randolph Rd., Wheaton. Tickets $10-$27.50. Call 800-838-3006 or visit unexpectedstage.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that playwright Deb Margolin’s son had developed cancer.