The intersection of art and commerce forms one theme of “One November Yankee,” the corollaries between technological progress and geopolitical issues another. At heart, however, the play concerns the mercurial relationship of brothers and sisters. As such, this impressive world premiere of Joshua Ravetch’s intricate two-hander, at the NoHo Arts Center, benefits from versatile leads Harry Hamlin and Loretta Swit.
A yellow Piper Cub in post-crash mode dominates designer Dana Moran Williams’s excellent set. This wreckage comes courtesy of Ralph (Hamlin), a high-profile artist preparing his installation at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The $75,000 commission is obviously welcome, but Ralph brashly claims a larger societal statement, although Maggie (Swit), his big sister and curator of his exhibit, is dubious.
Actually, that’s putting it mildly. Maggie, a much-married, pun-happy, foul-mouthed career woman given to misplacing her earrings, fears for Ralph’s reputation and her job. Their accelerating, often scathingly funny back-and-forth, which climaxes in a breathless rant from Maggie, lands through the force of Swit’s delivery and Hamlin’s acute reactions. It’s clear that the longstanding friction between these two has little to do with art, commerce, or flight history.
The play shifts back in time several years, when Harry (Hamlin) and Margo (Swit), also siblings, have just regained consciousness after the plane in question took a nose dive in the mountains of New Hampshire. Although the tone is again combative and sardonically funny, a grave undertow persists, as parallels to the previous scene dovetail with Harry and Margo’s recognition of the predicament they face.
After intermission, the action leaps forward to two days before the first scene, with Hamlin and Swit playing yet another brother and sister pair in hikers Ronnie and Mia, who make a startling discovery in New Hampshire. Here I must halt description or risk giving away too much. Suffice it to say that seemingly throwaway lines and repeated motifs continue to accrue significance throughout the evening, with a late return to Ralph and Maggie at MOMA bringing closure, reversals, and a final twist at the fade-out.
Playwright Ravetch has a real gift for loaded zingers and symmetrical plotting, often gleaning laughs and shivers at once. Luke Moyer’s lighting, Kate Bergh’s costumes, and Jeff Gardner’s sound design are effective without being overblown. And both actors are entirely creditable. Hamlin has seldom been so animated or engaging, whether playing a grown-up brat or a sensitive soul, and Swit endearingly expunges every trace of her longtime “M*A*S*H” character Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan from her onstage portrayals.
If their disciplined work carries the day, it also falls short of tours-de-force, possibly because Ravetch, directing his own script, doesn’t necessarily spur his stars beyond deft proficiency. Nor does the script achieve the full measure of intended pathos due to certain textual overcalculations, a surfeit of glibness, and an interval that halts the rising tension. Still, though “One November Yankee” might benefit from some rethinks, it’s a considerable achievement that certainly merits attendance.
Presented by the NoHo Arts Center Ensemble at NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Nov. 16–Jan. 12. (818) 508-7101 ext. 6, or www.thenohoartscenter.com.
Critic’s Score: B