"Picking up I can do. It's the staying with I can't cope with." There lies the transient core of "Tender" at GTC Burbank. Literate yet idiomatic, Abi Morgan's trenchant drama of the human hunger for connection receives a gripping U.S. premiere by Syzygy Theatre Group.
First presented at London's Hampstead Theatre in 2001, "Tender" has a softer structural touch than usual for the envelope-pushing Morgan ("Splendour," "Tiny Dynamite"). Here, she applies her distinctive voice to intimate histrionics that could make Tom Stoppard stop to take notice.
The plot follows seven Londoners in seemingly random intersection across Dan Jenkins' remarkable symbolist set. David B. Marling's wraparound urban sounds, Cynthia Herteg's modern wardrobe and Dan Reed's multifocused lighting keep the many transitions seamless.
Working with this striking design scheme, director Che'Rae Adams locates the script's nerve endings. Her sterling actors, cast for emotional quality, play it to the bone. Jennifer Pennington isn't your typical party girl as pivotal Tash, and she inhales this difficult character. If Shawn MacCaulay appears a shade older than written as intern Squeal, his concentration more than compensates.
Judy Blue is excellent as distraught Gloria, whose husband went out for milk one day and didn't return. As pregnant Hen, Tash's best friend, Amy Honey underplays without losing tension, and real-life husband Ryan Honey fully inhabits Al, her carpenter boyfriend. William Salyers uses his limited stage time wisely as wandering cleaner Marvin, while Mark McClain Wilson adds another affecting portrayal to his gallery as tormented widower Nathan.
Beautifully drawn, with convincing dialects courtesy of Nicolette Chaffey, these recognizable humans collide and retreat with the fluidity of strangers jostling on a subway.
Viewers who need easy answers may resist "Tender," but its incisive realization is an engrossing triumph for all concerned.
Where: GTC Burbank, 1111-B W. Olive Ave., Burbank
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays
Ends: March 30
Contact: (323) 254-9328 or www.syzygytheatre.org
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes