Called “whimsical” in its promotional materials, the world premiere of “Sagittarius Ponderosa” at New Conservatory Theatre Center was disappointingly vague and unfocused.
The shortcoming rests with playwright MJ Kaufman. They (Kaufman’s requested pronoun) have a gift for dialogue but fall short of offering a distinct point of view for the play or its main characters, rendering the work an occasionally engaging but lumpily unsatisfying pudding.
For reasons unexplained, Archer – regularly called Angela by family members – has come back home to live. Pops, a wide-eyed naïf, is recovering from a largely self-inflicted medical condition, Mom is too tightly wound with worry and vigilance, and Grandma lives nearby in a fantasy of planning Angela’s nuptials.
As a break from the family dynamics, Archer takes walks in the neighboring woods, unexpectedly meeting and starting a relationship with Owen, a forestry student and ranger intern.
Archer’s physicality suggests the topic of gender identity, gender fluidity and that perhaps Archer/Angela might be figuring out their place in that continuum, yet nothing in the dialogue supports that notion, or whether the character’s behavior is part of the family dynamic. It’s as if the audience is supposed to have known it before arriving.
That leaves perfectly cast actor SK Kerestas, who is quite naturally talented, with nothing for Archer/Angela to play as regards the unspoken dramaturgical elephant in the room. They (again, a requested pronoun) are wonderful in their romantic discovery scenes and their wariness dealing with the family dysfunction, but the character is never allowed to consider, let alone exhale, about their own journey.
The same can be said for Mom who, despite Janis DeLucia’s best efforts to broaden her, simply seems withholding and fatalistic.
The always enjoyable Michaela Greeley does bring a whimsical sense to Grandma’s agenda, including an extended (and silent) mixing of a love potion to slip to Angela.
Matthew Hannon is a gentle and sweet wonder as Owen, acting with refreshingly graceful sincerity. If Andy Collins seems a bit too Mayberry as Pops, he does a nice job animating Dave Haaz-Baroque’s astonishingly effective puppet that represents Peterson, Grandma’s New York Times bearing suitor later in the play.
Director Ben Randle, in clever collaboration with scenic designer Christian Mejia, creates an effective range of playing spaces, allowing the too frequently shifting scenes to flow nicely. He’s also guided the cast to extremely effective choices for their characters.
Perhaps with more influence on the writing he could have helped refine the narrative, but as it stands the production ultimately delivers less than the sum of its parts.
Where: New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 South Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 28
Tickets: $20 to $40
Contact: (415) 861-8972, www.nctcsf.org