The shakes

Sharp and entertaining, Collapse pulls back from the brink of subversion

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THEATER When your free-form sister (Amy Resnick) arrives from Los Angeles with a yoga mat, but without a job, a place to go, a return ticket, or a care in the world—except for an unopened package some guy named Bulldog asked her to hand off when she got to Minneapolis — it's unsettling. What's even shakier, though, is such a visit combined with a marriage teetering on the brink, a job or two in the balance, and a worldwide economic depression. It's then that foundations critically loosen, supports buckle, things suddenly fall apart. But is it all just Rumsfeldian "stuff" happening, or some human-made flaw in the system?

That's a question lurking teasingly, even frustratingly at the heart of Allison Moore's Collapse, an inconsistent but often bright new comedy now enjoying a sure and high-spirited production under director Jessica Heidt at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre. And by heart we mean the play's operative real-life metaphor: the deadly Aug. 1, 2007 collapse of a Minneapolis bridge. The piece of Interstate 35W that plunged into the Mississippi River that day was in heavy and regular use, a standard steel-truss arch bridge whose soundness no one would have thought to question. A broken stretch of it appears here as the impressive principal feature in Melpomene Katakalos' scenic design, filling the length and height of the back of the stage and looming over the action throughout.

Officials pronounced the likely cause of the accident a design flaw, coupled by extra weight. That's a description that could fit the whole socioeconomic system girding the play's action and themes. Set in 2009 against the literal backdrop of the bridge and the figurative one of the current economic crisis, nothing is as secure as it once seemed in the staunchly middle-class home of attorney Hannah (Carrie Paff) and her husband David (Gabriel Marin). David, we learn, has not been going to work much and has become a queasy, quasi-alcoholic—more of a poser than anything else, since he secretly drops most of his beer on the house plant, but anything to justify his ungovernable fear since miraculously surviving the bridge collapse in 2007.

As flaky sis Susan (played with a hilariously reckless, chirpy energy by Resnick) arrives from LaLa Land with her disturbingly large suitcase, Hannah has been concentrating the couple's energies on having a child. A professional and beautiful woman used to getting her way and now (in Paff's nicely nuanced performance) increasingly at a loss as things slip out of her grasp, Hannah pushes the baby idea to erase another recent, related tragedy, even as her position at the firm looks precarious.

She also pushes David (played by Marin with a comically anxious, hangdog moodiness) toward AA. Somehow she ends up going instead, on his behalf, as David decides to deliver the shady mystery package himself. When in the hallway Hannah meets a charismatic black man named Ted (a charmingly imposing Aldo Billingslea) — nickname, Bulldog — an affair looks in the offing, and a crime caper, to boot.

Heidt's strong cast transforms the unmoored quality among these four characters into some good laughs. But Moore's writing is up and down. The dialogue is crisp at times, labored at others. Moreover, the characters can come too laden with undeveloped contradictions. Most unsettling is the sudden shift in the final scene, which forgoes comedy for a forced sincerity that brushes any larger political point under the condo rug. When an emotional David asks his wife, "How do we keep collapsing?," her response tolls an unsatisfying reaffirmation of marital harmony: "Maybe we can't. Maybe we can just figure out how to fall together."

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