In New Ground Theatre's current production of playwright Julie Marie Myatt's Cowbird, Patti Flaherty is a glorious wreck.
The actress plays Lorna Cotes, a middle-aged party gal with an insinuating grin and a throaty laugh, and our first sight of the character finds her holding court in a Santa Monica tavern, flirting with unapologetic abandon and happily demanding (and receiving) complimentary drinks. Lorna radiates a kind of blowzy, seen-and-done-it-all sexiness - she seems the type of good-time barfly who's always four or five sheets to the wind, as three is for those who just aren't trying hard enough - and from her opening scene in Myatt's comedic drama, Flaherty attacks the role with brazen authority and invigorating skill. Cowbird runs an intermission-less 80 minutes, and I think I would've been perfectly content to spend those minutes merely watching Flaherty play various degrees of forthright intoxication; naturally, there's more to Myatt's piece than that, but with Flaherty as its lead, there doesn't need to be.
Unfortunately, it's in the "more" that things grow sticky. That initial bar scene finds Lorna hitting on the much younger, much quieter Michael (Matt Mercer), a visitor from Pittsburgh, and it's not long before we discover the source of his fascination with her: Michael, it turns out, is the son Lorna gave up for adoption some 25 years ago. With his adoptive mom now deceased, the young man is seeking ... something from his birth mother, though not even he apparently knows what; Lorna, however, no longer wants anything to do with him, nor with the other twentysomethings (Daniel Hass' Ben and Maggie Woolley's Celia) who make their way into her world. (Not to give away Myatt's storyline, but as a species, a cowbird lays its eggs in another bird's nest, and promptly abandons them.) It's a situation that's ripe for both comedy and poignancy, and director Chris Jansen and her first-rate actors manage to deliver a goodly amount of both - a considerable feat, considering how tough it is to actually believe in the show.
It's hard enough to buy the play's central conceit - that Lorna, through some act of fate or random coincidence, finds herself paying for all of her past sins simultaneously. But with the exception of its protagonist, the characters here - including Lorna's flighty next-door neighbor Maggie (Peggy Hanske), and convertible-driving suitor Bert (Patti Flaherty's husband Pat) - are so sketchily drawn that they don't seem to exist except as functional nuisances to Cowbird's lead, and their behavior and dialogue continually rings false; the initially reticent and downbeat Michael morphs, with no preparation, into a joshing, jovial, big-brother type, and while this doesn't seem to be Myatt's intention, Celia is introduced with an overtly poetic verbal assault that makes her seem quite mad.
If the characters remain unclear throughout, their responses to Lorna are even less clear; in one particularly vexing scene, Lorna angrily kicks her visitors out of her apartment, and the trio exits, silently and in single file, with no discernible reaction whatsoever. I'm all for doing a little work at the theatre, but Cowbird makes you do too much work. You're forced into constantly filling emotional and developmental holes in Myatt's script, and while the play has "themes" to spare, they're presented so coyly that you start to lose interest in them. Beginning with its title, the play feels so rife with symbolism and metaphor that you even become distracted by elements in the production that only seem symbolic. (Is there a reason that the door to Lora's apartment opens the wrong way - outward from the interior?)
Watching the play, I kept thinking it would've made for a much stronger screenplay, as many motivational questions could have been answered through the nuance of closeups. (Film would also effectively handle the tricky scene transitions; though the pacing is mostly sharp, Lorna's costume changes lead to some unfortunate lags in tempo.) Yet under iffy circumstances, Cowbird's cast does an admirable job of suggesting beating hearts beneath Myatt's bare-bones conceptions. Mercer, a fantastically agreeable stage presence, underplays with empathy and warmth, and gets lovely, friendly rhythms going with Hass, who displays a welcome comic gift for lightly loopy non sequiturs, and Woolley, who turns in an exceptionally fine, no-bullshit performance. Pat Flaherty is expectedly marvelous, even though Bert, too, makes little sense - after a convivial introduction, the character immediately seems to lose all confidence - and Hanske is a delightful flake, bringing good-natured eccentricity to a role that seems designed for a much older performer.
And, of course, there's Patti Flaherty, boozing and braying and having a high old time; her disarmingly fierce, multi-faceted, and funny portrayal ensures that this character who would likely be hell to be around in Real Life is, in Cowbird, actually someone who can't be around nearly enough. At one point during her introductory scene, Lorna takes quick stock of the attention she's generating, and Flaherty - seeming to address us directly - admonishes the clientele with a curt "Resist me!" Not a chance.
For tickets and information, call (563)326-7529 or visit NewGroundTheatre.org.