Big Dreams: Paul Weitz’s Lonely, I’m Not Bores

The Classic Stage Company’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is gorgeous

Paul Weitz, the screenwriter and movie director and producer and playwright, seems to have a perfectly happy and lucrative and well-adjusted life: wife, daughter and a string of Hollywood successes, including About a Boy, Antz and the American Pie series. And yet with his latest play, Lonely, I’m Not, he returns to the Second Stage Theatre for the second time in two years with another story about a young man whose early professional triumphs have left him in a near-catatonic state of arrested development.

Two summers ago, in Trust, the erstwhile Scrubs star Zach Braff played a nebbishy dotcom millionaire, paralyzed by his newfound wealth and increasingly loveless marriage. Now, in Lonely, I’m Not, which opened Monday night, the erstwhile That ’70s Show star Topher Grace plays Porter, a nebbishy Wall Street whiz who made a fortune, flamed out, had a breakdown, divorced his wife and now can’t work, date or even, apparently, interview for a job.

It’s enough to make you think Mr. Weitz would rather he’d been a failure.

With Lonely, I’m Not, he comes ever so slightly closer.

Porter (Mr. Grace) is four years past his breakdown and finally, he hopes, ready to re-enter the world. A job interview, to be a second-grade teacher, goes badly. (“And what makes you want to teach second grade?” “Well, I remember liking second grade.”) But a first date with Heather (Olivia Thirlby), another accomplished Wall Street type, a woman who is blind, goes much better. They’re a good pair, each smart, tough and ambitious, each fighting against and resentful of a handicap—his mental, hers physical. Each has one dead parent and one living, problematic one: Her mother is smothering, his father is a con artist. They fall in love, which gives them each the courage to move forward: her to a new job in a new city, after she’s passed over for a deserved promotion, him to get off his couch and take a job at a coffee shop.

It’s not an unpleasant hour and a half, with funny one-liners and amusing characters. Director Trip Cullman gives the play an efficient, nicely polished production, with a minimalist, industrial look and frequent neon and projected titles, wryly signposting new scenes. (The sets are by Mark Wendland, the lighting by Matt Frey and the projection design by Aaron Rhyne.)

Mr. Grace, who also starred in Mr. Weitz’s In Good Company, is excellent in his lead role, buoying the show with the same charming deadpan neuroses that elevated That ’70s Show into something more than a run-of-the-mill sitcom. Ms. Thirlby, who was in Mr. Weitz’s Being Flynn, gives a steely, focused performance as Heather, a hard worker who must work even harder to succeed, someone so determined not to need any help that she’s nearly incapable of accepting any. The talented supporting cast fills an array of roles: Mark Blum is Porter’s dad and Heather’s boss; Lisa Emery is Heather’s mother and the school administrator who won’t hire Porter; Christopher Jackson is the fellow Wall Streeter who tries to get Porter back in the game and also the Starbucks guy; Maureen Sebastian is Porter’s ex-wife and Heather’s bubbly, up-talking, overbearing roommate.

But while Lonely, I’m Not is pleasant, sweet in a way and nicely staged, it’s also not very compelling. It lacks much excitement, or even the winning comedic situations and set pieces of its antecedent, Trust. Where the earlier play opened with its yuppie protagonist entering an S&M dungeon, this one opens with its yuppie protagonist arriving too early at a Starbucks. In the earlier play the yuppie protagonist was jolted out of his funk by falling in love with the dominatrix, with whom he’d realized he went to high school, a funny, unexpected meet-cute. In this one that jolt arrives when its yuppie protagonist falls in love with another yuppie, with whom he is set up by the glib mutual grad-school friend known only by the frat-boy nickname Little Dog. That’s meet-standard, or even a little meet-smarmy.

And, indeed, despite its more or less earnest message, smarm might be Lonely, I’m Not’s biggest problem. When a play’s primary concern is whether a burnt-out master-of-the-universe prodigy can again find within himself the mental stability to “tear some shit up and fucking obliterate some motherfuckers,” as Porter tells Little Dog in the brief moment he’s considering going back to work, one’s natural reaction—in the post-Lehman Brothers, lingering unemployment, collapsing Europe, we-are-the-99-percent era—isn’t to root for him but against him.

There are many words you might use to describe the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream now playing at the Classic Stage Company, but “classic” is unlikely

Sure, it’s Shakespeare, his widely read and performed pastoral comedy, which makes it inherently a classic. But little else about Tony Speciale’s over-the-top, visually stunning staging, with choreography by George De La Peña, sets once again by Mr. Wendland, lights by Tyler Micoleau and costumes by Andrea Lauer, could be described by that staid adjective. Here are some you might try instead: silly, confounding, comedic, effervescent, titillating, sexy, beautiful.

That last one is probably the most important. There are some big names in the production—Bebe Neuwirth, of all people, plays the Amazonian queen Hippolyta and the fairy queen Titania; Christina Ricci is the fair young Hermia; plus there are the downtown stalwarts Taylor Mac as Puck and David Greenspan as the trouper Francis Flute—and also a near-constant stream of laughs. But the thing here is the sets and staging, from the mulch-like floor to the tilted wall of mirrors overhead to the torrents of rose petals that eventually pour down and coat the stage. It’s gorgeous and often very witty, like when lawn chairs and popcorn appear for the troupers watching the lovers fight.

And finally there are the costumes. From Ms. Neuwirth’s fairy costume of a leather bustier, the better to show off those dancer’s legs, to the tight white skivvies in which the young, fetching lovers spend much of Act III fighting with each other—Ms. Ricci and Halley Wegryn Gross as Hermia and Helena, Nick Gehlfuss and Jordan Dean as Lysander and Demetrius—this lush-to-look-at Midsummer Night’s Dream offers something dreamy for everyone.

Big Dreams: Paul Weitz’s Lonely, I’m Not Bores