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City meets country in Embraceable Me

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Allison is gregarious, flirty, a dish ... but she's also a gifted writer who yearns to fulfill her creative potential. Edward, a classmate headed for a career in editing, sees Allison's talent clearly, encourages it, and nurtures it along, shyly hoping that she will shed her many admirers and reward his deeper love. But the differences between the two protagonists of Victor L. Cahn's Embraceable Me merely begin with sociability.

Because Allison is so disorganized and messy, Edward neatens her room and balances her checkbook. Because people make Edward so uncomfortable, Allison slakes his eternal loneliness. Campus life enables the pair to have a symbiotic, mostly platonic relationship, with intimacies that are spiritual and emotional.

After graduation, additional barriers conspire to keep the Allison-Edward bond from becoming physical. Chiefly, it's geography. When we meet them in the opening scene, he's countrified, secluded in academia, with no inclinations toward expanding his horizons. She's an established TV personality -- her telegenic gifts more thoroughly exploited than her writing talent -- swooping in on her old college chum. By now, she's well-traveled, citified, with places to go and celebs to interview.

She's also engaged to be married, definitely a crisis for Edward.

Although NC Blumenthal PAC is producing the show at their intimate Stage Door Theater, the production is a hybrid. While actors in this romantic comedy, Dave Blamy and Johanna Jowett, are firmly based in Charlotte, director Eric Parness piloted the off-Broadway world premiere last October. Even the playwright was tangentially involved, appearing with Parness and his co-stars at talkbacks during the opening weekend, revealing that he had taken his first airplane flight in 25 years to get here. Yes, there's more than a little bit of Cahn in Edward.

Might we also say that there's also a little of that same Brahmin diffidence that keeps the protagonists of A.R. Gurney's Love Letters so needlessly apart so long? Better not to see both these two-handers in the same month. Cahn's piece isn't epistolary, but it has its own stylized elements. Perched on stools at opposite sides of the stage, Allison and Edward spend a good portion of the show confiding in us, repeatedly sharing their differing viewpoints on the key moments they re-enact.

Jowett and Blamy are both able to raise or demolish the fourth wall in a heartbeat, staying comfortably within their characters as they do. With a narrower range of energy and emotion to traverse, Blamy makes it seem more effortless as Edward. Yet we must see the ardor that burns beneath the scholar's bookish exterior, and Blamy carries it off well -- well enough for Allison's affection for the recluse to appear feasible.

At the first Sunday matinee, Jowett seemed tight -- or lost -- at the very beginning. But she zoned into Allison completely after her opening remarks to the audience, utterly relaxed in her subsequent asides. The sort of vitality that burns within Jowett enables her to do one thing that Blamy cannot: Switching on the energy and the charm, she becomes younger in mid-stride.

Gillian Albinski's set design is handsome enough, Edward's donnish digs at stage right and Allison's scatterbrained dorm room at the opposite side. A more nebulous area between these two might help give more color to the many scenes that occur in different places, including a cafeteria, a train station and a high school reunion. Where set design didn't have the bases covered, more emphatic intervention by lighting designer Samuel Guine III would help.

What Parness does best is the simmering chemistry between the couple. There are moments when Allison's confidences sound like giggly tattling on The View, and Edward, while he never descends to locker room bawdry, adds no profundity on the subjects of friendship, love and mutual sacrifice. Yet when Jowett and Blamy are in front of us, they seem to be a freshly unfolding story. Lusts and anguish are genuinely keen, and we're invested in their happiness. So there are glimmers of illumination after all, beyond words.

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