Playwright: Chelsea Marcantel. At: The New Colony at Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: www.thenewcolony.org; $20-$25. Runs through: May 15
There are a lot of well-worn character stereotypes and storytelling tropes in Even Longer and Farther Away, Chelsea Marcantel's world-premiere drama for The New Colony. Yet director Thrisa Hodits' displays a clever way of rethinking a Den Theatre space to initially throw off audiences in a slightly off-kilter environmental staging. It all helps to makes Marcantel's patchy and symbol-filled material feel more substantial.
While some audience members are allowed to sit back in traditional theater seats lining the perimeter, Hodits allows others to be in the middle of the action by sitting at tables in a quirky and magical Appalachian Mountain resort. This creates an interesting dynamic as audience members get up close and personal to the main characters.
Yet as the play progresses, the onstage audience is apparently meant to disappear when the main conflict arises as Alexis ( Amanda Raquel Martinez ) and her boyfriend, Jack ( Joe Lino ), amazingly catch up with her embittered half-brother Elliot ( Patriac Coakley ) and his gay best friend, Roy ( Omer Abbas Salem ). Both half-siblings are trying to honor their late father by hiking the entire Appalachian Trail with part of his cremated remains, but Elliot has far more personal baggage.
Also working through her lost longing and resentment is the youngish resort employee Nayda ( Morgan McNaught ), who has what becomes an odd familial relationship to the place's owner, Trudy ( a commanding and comforting Deanna Reed-Foster ). Elliot wants to press on, but Trudy insists that they listen to her metaphoric and literal stories and stay for the next day's festival.
Finding out the interlinking connections between the characters keeps interest throughout Even Longer and Farther Away, but it doesn't hide the fact that Marcantel's writing also trades in stereotypical characters like the "magical negro" or the "sassy gay friend." Luckily, the performances under Hodits' direction make these types more full-bodied and well-rounded people, especially in dedicated turns by Reed-Foster and Salem.
There's also a good sibling rivalry dynamic that plays out between Coakley ( unafraid to be unlikable as the pushy and resentful Elliot ) and Martinez ( ever the mender, as Alexis ). Lino also milks the most humor he can in the smaller role of Jack.
I only wish that McNaught brought more apparent world-weariness to Nayda, who is later revealed to be more than she appears to be. Once this revelation happens, McNaught's even-keel performance doesn't seem to plumb the depths necessary for her troubled character.
Even though Marcantel's writing in Even Longer and Farther Away is ultimately uneven, the creative staging by Hodits and her largely polished cast serve to be intriguing concealers. Here it's the approach that is sometimes more intriguing than the content.