Poignant, funny ‘Bright Half Life’

Sarah Nina Hayon, left, and Lisa Anne Porter are excellent in Magic Theatre’s “Bright Half Life.” (Courtesy Jennifer Reiley)

New York playwright Tanya Barfield’s “Bright Half Life,” now in a Magic Theatre West Coast premiere, is the kind of two-hander that is so specific and detailed in all the right ways that it achieves a universality.

The white, charmingly butch Erica (played by Lisa Anne Porter), a textbook writer, approaches her Latina boss, Vicky (who doesn’t present as lesbian but who’s on Erica’s “gaydar”), for a date. Vicky (Sarah Nina Hayon) is shy, hesitant, but soon enough won over.

The play, in Barfield’s intricately non-linear and smooth-flowing succession of mostly short scenes, actually starts out in media res. In the first scene, the couple, already separated, re-meet; Erica’s father is dying, which has apparently caused her to rethink her whole life. She proposes then and there to Vicky.

From that point on, the scenes play out in flashbacks, flash-forwards and the occasional rerun (always from a fresh perspective or in a different context) that segue one into the other (and sometimes instantaneously back again). A word, a gesture, can cue a sudden scene change.

It’s a tribute to Barfield’s funny and poignant script, and to Hayon and Porter’s terrific acting as directed by Jessica Holt, that we care about these women from the get-go.

By the end, we’ve witnessed a whole lifetime’s worth of a relationship beautifully compacted into a tight, spare 90 minutes: first awkward meeting, a series of dates (including a ferris wheel ride, a kite-flying escapade, a goofy mattress-buying expedition, skydiving and a significant stuck-elevator episode), romance, battle-of-wills fights and life passages (career decisions, marriage, children and more).

This is a minimalist production as befits the material: set designer Eric Flatmo’s curved-platform stage bare of everything but a bench; no props; just a few sound effects (by Brian Hickey); no costume changes (the women are casually dressed throughout, courtesy of Christine Crook); no between-scene blackouts. All the focus is, fittingly, on the actors and their joyful, fragile, fraught relationship.

Holt’s direction — unsentimental, gracefully and creatively blocked on the small stage, crisply paced, sensitive to nuances of emotion and to the script’s abrupt changes of mood (which the actors finesse seamlessly) — is superb.

Barfield understands how past and present can braid together in unexpected ways, how we grow and change, how love can persist over a lifetime despite everything. This Magic production captures the, yes, magic of all that.

Bright Half Life
Presented by Magic Theatre
Where: Strand, 1127 Market St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. most Wednesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, closes Dec. 6
Tickets: $35 to $75
Contact: (415) 441-8822, www.magictheatre.org

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