In his new play, “Nice Things,” premiering at Rogue Machine Theatre, Vince Melocchi returns to the middle-American, blue-collar, recession-devastated milieu of his two previous plays, “Lions” and “Julia.”
Set in and around a dying mall in Dunsmore, Pa., “Nice Things” explores the ethics of army recruitment in a bad economy, a complex issue helpfully broken down in the segments of a radio broadcast that frame each scene.
The story opens at a funeral for Danny, killed in Afghanistan. His pretty, bereft girlfriend, Amy (Connor Kelly-Eiding), meets his nebbishy childhood friend, Justin (Michael Hanson). She lights up when she remembers that Danny told her about Justin, the smart one, the one who got away.
He works at a Pittsburgh radio station, where, he admits, he isn’t paid very well and his boss doesn’t appreciate his ideas. But for Amy, who dreams of culinary school but works at Dunkin’ Donuts, it might as well be “60 Minutes.”
She proposes that Justin do an exposé about the mall recruiter who lured Danny into the National Guard by promising he wouldn’t have to go overseas. When Justin seems reluctant, Amy uses her seductive powers to persuade him.
Meanwhile, the mall recruiter herself, Staff Sgt. Bobbie Jo Gunning (Rebekah Tripp), is feeling guilty about Danny’s death. Also, something that happened to her in Afghanistan is affecting her relationship with her cute, devoted girlfriend, Sandy (Amy K. Harmon, an alternate for Melanie Lyons).
Fortunately, by following the therapeutic catharsis model of contemporary drama, she is eventually able to open up about it and be healed.
Although the Amy-Justin dynamic is less predictable, it also pivots, rather clunkily, on concealed information. Still, despite the occasionally heavy-handed psychology—a hurdle for director Elina de Santos and her cast—the performances are engaging. Tripp is particularly convincing in her military bearing (not easy to fake); and her Bobbie Joe is a decent, real and appealing woman.
Overall, the action proceeds hesitantly, almost apologetically; for an issue play, its issues never have much punch. The abstract set by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, an odd choice for a realistic script so grounded in its landscape, contributes to the vagueness.
The final image, the names of soldiers killed in the war projected onto the walls, is the most poignant moment in the production.
“Nice Things,” Rogue Machine in Theatre/Theater, 5041 W. Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 23. $30. (855) 585-5185 or www.roguemachinetheatre.com. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.