"Curve of Departure" opens with an old man named Rudy watching absurd tabloid TV in a hotel room, and by the end of Rachel Bonds's gorgeous little drama, that seems like a wry joke. The play is very nearly as oversaturated with family crises as the junk Rudy surfs. But Bonds has a special alchemy: Her characters and dialogue are drawn with such fine, honest strokes that even one complication too many doesn't really feel false.
Because who hasn't had the pileup of crazy-making family issues until one more comes crashing down and all you can say is: Really?
Bonds meticulously crafts her 85-minute slice of life in one long, unbroken scene (with a coda) that is impeccably designed and played at Studio Theatre. The occasion is the funeral of Rudy's universally loathed son Cyrus. Rudy shares the room with his daughter-in-law, Linda, who was abandoned by Cyrus but affectionately tends to Rudy as dementia and incontinence bedevil him. Linda's grown son Felix will also be sharing the room. So will Felix's boyfriend, Jackson.
Unlike Joshua Harmon's comic "Bad Jews," a 2014 Studio hit that locked feral cousins in an apartment to see who could survive (you have to love Studio's nose for holiday attractions), the room in "Curve" is filled with love. Director Mike Donahue, who directed the show's September premiere at California's South Coast Rep, draws performances that are measured down to each heartfelt hug and secretive hesitation. All it takes, for instance, is the slightest beat between Justin Weaks's playful Felix and Sebastian Arboleda's cautious Jackson for Linda's radar to gently blip.
As Linda, Ora Jones bears the weight of events with unfussy gallantry. Caregiving is the order of the night: Linda takes the cot, manages Rudy's needs and welcomes the nervously polite Jackson. Responding to the nuance in the script's relationships, Jones plays Linda with a great set of ears. Linda's not sure the semi-employed Jackson is right for her beloved son, and she can tell something is off between them.
Peter Van Wagner is hilarious with Rudy's perspective as an aged and brash New York Jew — "New York is like a beautiful and damaged woman," he lectures rhapsodically to the young men, who live in Los Angeles — and also heartbreaking as Rudy rushes to the bathroom and brays about trying to die with dignity. Bonds handles background information with a feather-light touch: Rudy is white; Linda, who ended up divorced from Rudy's son, is black; Felix is dark-skinned; the heavily tattooed Jackson is Latino and from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks. That's the group.
"A strange ragtag little group of humans," Rudy says in a lucid moment.
None of them really want to honor Cyrus, but they're bonded. Their moral sense makes this a consistently honorable play, which wouldn't matter if it weren't absorbingly believable moment to moment. Lauren Helpern, who designed the set for the South Coast Rep premiere, here supplies a New Mexico hotel room so exacting you can peek into the bathroom of neatly folded towels and watch the bedside alarm clock tick past midnight. In the ultra-cozy Milton Theatre, the actors act as if in a long movie close-up.
Weaks, like Van Wagner, never feels forced as he finds comedy in his character, and he's equally good when Felix's jolly mask finally drops. Arboleda is spot-on, too, as the outsider Jackson, the boyfriend who hasn't fully passed the family audition and knows he has a red flag hanging over his head.
It's a show that won't tolerate wrong notes, and Donahue allows none. It's also the sort of microscopically observed thing Studio does better than any other theater in town. Since it's December, this is safe to say: It's one of the year's most beautiful performances.
Curve of Departure, by Rachel Bonds. Directed by Mike Donahue. Costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lights, Scott Zielinski; sound design, Roc Lee. About 85 minutes. Through Jan. 7 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Tickets $52-$90. Call 202-332-3300 or visit StudioTheatre.org.