It’s rare that I get the kind of surprises I got from Desperate Affection, playing through June 30 at Off-Broadstreet Theater in Hopewell. It starts off as an extremely conventional romantic comedy and flips its way through a series of twists and turns that will alternately shock, amaze, delight, charm, and punch you in the gut. And OBT’s excellent marketing for the piece deserves its kudos — each and every revelation of the script is kept hidden from us in the current PR, making for a completely engrossing evening of theater, devoid of spoilers or expectations spawned from flowery descriptions, prior productions, or other pre-viewing play-ruiners.
With that in mind, this is a hard review to write, because I want you to go see it. It’s the best piece of community theater I’ve seen in New Jersey in the last year and you owe it to yourself to stay away from Google and the other trappings of information about the play.
If you want the short-short review, here it is: See it.
Now, let’s continue. It’s 1990s New York, and moderately successful actress Maddie (Alison Quairoli) celebrates her four-month anniversary with Richard (Jonathan Wierzbicki), a security expert. The two meet in her spacious Manhattan apartment, and a teddy bear, large wrapped gift, voice message etiquette, and codependency at an imminent gay wedding all figure prominently into the sitcomesque trappings of the play’s first 20 minutes; it feels, for all its efforts, as if we’re watching a slightly updated version of Barefoot in the Park. And that’s OK, I suppose, if a little boring, if we were stuck in it for two-plus hours.
The good news is: we’re not. Very quickly, everything shifts, and a bathroom handle, a well-polished window, a pair of handcuffs, and plenty of reversals and gunplay transform this cutesy comedy into a pitch-black bonbon of power plays and high-stakes tension. It’s a pretty amazing high-wire act to witness, and I keep having to stop myself from spoiling it at every turn. With all of that said, this glorious little two-hander is sexy, accessible, and incredibly well-put-together. It’s as if someone took a Neil Simon play and handed it to Quentin Tarantino for a second draft, and boy oh boy, does it ever work. I’m shocked this hasn’t yet become more heavily produced, but that’s part of the fun; the joy of this show is that the surprises happen because we’re all free to enjoy them, instead of anticipate them.
Director Lois Carr guides Alison Quairoli and Jonathan Wierzbicki through moments both baudy and intimate, and her two actors are masterful in each of their own rights; Quairoli is all pluck and feisty beauty, self-assured and choosing to be other than the shrinking violet, even when her life depends on it. And Wierzbicki, in his OBT debut, is a big old bear hug of warmth, followed by a shiv between the ribs and then a hearty laugh and a clap on the back. He calls to mind Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, both in his icy truthfulness and effortless handsomeness. He’s pretty much the definition of leading man, and the ladies of a certain age sitting behind me couldn’t help but gossip about him and fan themselves. So, if that’s your thing, you’ve got another reason to buy a ticket.
I don’t know how many other ways I can say this, folks. This is the sleeper hit of the year, and you’ve got a scant three weekends left to take it in. It’s going to have you talking for days afterward, and it’s a nigh-impossible high-wire act to pull off a thriller like this that can be chilling in one moment and adorable in the next. It’s a minor miracle of an awesome potboiler of a show, and I implore you: Get yourself some tickets. You also get dessert, as with every OBT show, if that’s a helpful decision maker. I repeat: Get your tickets.
You’ll kick yourself for missing this one. So don’t.
“Desperate Affection,” Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Through June 30. $29.50 to $31.50. 609-466-2766 or www.off-broadstreet.com.