For all those arch ironists out there, Stephen Belber's new effort is not for you. Its expressive title neither heralds paradox nor conceals comeuppance. A Small, Melodramatic Story is a prime example of truth in advertising — as well as smart, stylish, and surprisingly tender theatre.
From the play's introductory monologue, Belber drips poetry across the perversely sterile set (sharply designed by Takeshi Kata). Documentation is a "stupid, beautiful human habit," sex a "smooth prescription." But while Belber's characters are undoubtedly pegs on which to hang rich images and even richer ideas, they are also a sharply drawn quartet, composed of three characters who know where they stand and a fourth who doesn't realize that uncertainty may be her ultimate aphrodisiac. That's O (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), a widow who acknowledges — with pride? — that her last three lovers were a crazed military captain and two amateur boxers.
True to the play's title, its plot is slight. Melodrama comes courtesy of Keith (Lee Sellars), a comically conspiracy-friendly employee of the NSA (National Security Archive) who investigates the pasts of O's deceased husband and her current paramour (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.). For Keith, pulling at the strings of a mystery is about getting down to the first strand. For O, well, she may just like making a whole mess of string.
"Shit happens," O and other characters declare, conjuring last season's Public Theater hit. But in contrast to Stuff Happens, A Small, Melodramatic Story focuses less on shirking responsibility than on locating it. Curiously, then, the show's closest theatrical cousin turns out to be Michael Frayn's brilliantly probing Copenhagen. Though Frayn's style was intellectual ice and Belber's here is closer to incendiary sentiment, both burn with the search into certainty.
Wisely, Belber never allows high melodrama to hijack the evening. While the play's uniformly excellent cast — deftly directed by Lucie Tiberghien — choke, sob, and shout with the best of 'em, they also land the simpler moments. Particularly memorable are Sellars' zealous retelling of Rod Serling's war games, and Whitlock's warmth in a dance sequence whose range of styles plays as homage to the Jack Rabbit Slim's scene in Pulp Fiction.
At one point, Belber gives Keith a lovely speech on mankind's urge to record its history. Self-effacing Keith, though, brushes off his role in human drama as merely that of a facilitator. In A Small, Melodramatic Story, Belber proves just what a rare and special talent dramatic facilitation can be.
Presented by LAByrinth Theater Company at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., NYC. Oct. 24-Nov. 5. Tue., 7 p.m.; Wed.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m. (212) 967-7555 or www.publictheater.org.