Playwright Bekah Brunstetter is certainly an artful emotional manipulator, as evidenced in "Be a Good Little Widow," now in its Los Angeles premiere at the NoHo Arts Center. Even though you may be keenly aware that your feelings are being slyly exploited, you just might reach for a hankie anyway.
A simple premise suffices for Brunstetter's obvious but nonetheless effective comedy-drama. Up-and-coming corporate attorney Craig (Donovan Patton) is juggling the affections of two women -- his free-spirited new wife, Melody (Larisa Oleynik), and his perfectionist widowed mother, Hope (Caroline Aaron).
Native Coloradan Melody feels displaced in her new Connecticut milieu, and she's keenly aware of Hope's disapproval of her thrift store-heavy home, a sort of glorified crash pad amusingly realized in Lacey Anzelc's tidy-ugly set, which has been evocatively lighted by Dan Weingarten.
When Craig is killed in a plane crash, Melody gives way to her grief, further alienating Hope, a paragon of stoicism and reserve. Of course, the dynamic eventually inverts, as Melody begins to accept her loss and Hope confronts the magnitude of hers.
Director Sara Botsford elicits fine performances from her well-balanced cast. Oleynik progresses from comical bubbliness to genuine anguish, while Aaron is bracingly dry in a character that could have been simply stock.
Hope's eventual collapse is gut-wrenching, a painful insight into the bleak future of a woman who has lost her only child. Trey McCurley nicely underplays his character, a goofy law firm intern who is fast falling for Melody.
Patton, who strikes up a poignant chemistry with Oleynik, is an accomplished actor, although one wishes that the deceased Craig didn't waft back onto the scene for those posthumous chats with Melody -- a trite device we have seen once too often.
To her credit, Botsford largely mitigates the play's pitfalls, keeping Brunstetter's somewhat remedial premise anchored in truthfulness throughout.