Philip Dawkins’ unorthodox play Failure: A Love Story isn’t the first to counsel music, love and laughter as an antidote to death, but it may be unique in heralding that milestone in a blithe and gleeful way.
The chirpy songs and capricious plot turns in this whimsical piece are an acquired taste — and, to be frank, not mine. That said, this production is staged with tight-reined focus by director Michael Matthews, and showcases a disciplined ensemble whose pointed portrayals help shave the cloying edges from the material. (The play is for Coeurage Theatre Company, which allows ticket buyers to “pay what you want.”)
The story, relayed by multiple narrators, begins in 1900 when immigrants Henry (Neil Taffe) and Marietta Fail (Gina Torrecilla) arrive in Chicago and establish a clock business and a family. After they drown in a freak accident, the narrative shifts to their three daughters: Gertrude (June Carryl), the responsible eldest who takes over the family business; Jenny June (Nicole Shalhoub) an assertive gal and a competitive swimmer; and Nelly (Margaret Katch) a sweet and girlish charmer.
All three, we’re breezily informed, will die within a year — but not before each falls madly in love with the same suitor, Mortimer Mortimer (Kurt Quinn), who is fated to love, and then mourn, each in turn.
A fourth sibling, stepbrother John (Joseph V. Calarco), survives them. He’s a peculiar fellow, an animal person more in touch with his pet python than with family or friends.
Alternating between prose narrative and dramatic depiction, the chronicle’s zany events are interspersed with upbeat tunes from the period — such as “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” — along with original compositions by Gregory Nabours, who’s behind the piano when not out front in supporting roles (among them a dog about to be put under). There’s a neat little group number, “Johnny Weismuller,” sung by a peeved Mortimer and company when this insecure lover suspects the celebrity muscleman as a rival for Jenny June’s affections.
One issue to be ironed out: The instrumentals sometimes compete with the performers. They might be toned down a bit, especially toward the beginning. And JR Bruce’s kitschy scenic design is overly cluttered; something sparser would have worked better to visually complement the performances.
As to these, Calarco’s odd duck nabs several of the piece’s genuinely funny moments, and a blossomy Katch makes for an appealing ingénue. As Mortimer, Quinn starts out somewhat nondescriptly but gains real dimension as this fable's bereft survivor.
GTC Burbank, 1100 W. Clark Ave. Burbank; through Aug. 29. (323) 944-2165, coeurage.secure.force.com/ticket.