I like to call them "Jeans and T-Shirt Dramas." You know the style: damaged white guy lives in squalor, but he's just trying to survive in this big, mixed-up world. He's witty and sarcastic, because he's stifling a tragic secret. He's drawn to strong, sexy women, but scared to commit. And there's a class struggle: Our antihero, who wears Levis and plain T-shirts, lives in the shadow of yuppies and Reaganites. He mocks their limousines and country clubs, but he's hurt by their snide remarks. There's a lot of talking, lots of wisecracks, lots of breakdowns and discussion of feelings. Our everyman has to "learn to let go" and "move on" and "be himself."
The Real Thing is a Jeans and T-Shirt Drama. So are Dirty Dancing, Ordinary People and sex, lies and videotape. This genre, in short, encapsulates the 1980s.
And now there's Don Gordon's Panache, produced by South Park Theatre. Gordon is from Pittsburgh, and his drama hit off-Broadway pay-dirt in 2000. But everything about Panache echoes these 1980s themes: There's Harry, a sardonic short-order cook, who plays cards and drowns his sorrows in cheap beer. There's his friend Jumbo, who is generically guyish and clueless.
Then Kathleen Trafalgar shows up -- a super-rich society lady who spends her life playing golf and cruising the Caribbean. She recently ordered a vanity license plate ("Panache") that Harry had already claimed. So they argue about ownership of panache in Harry's rat-hole Brooklyn apartment. Then they reveal their inner souls: Harry is actually an artist in disguise, and Kathleen resents her opulent life. (She's basically Ivana Trump without the accent.) Soon they're playing 21 and going camping. They're talking about sex and cancer and happiness. Harry slowly learns to let go, to move on, to be himself ...
In short, the formula worked tidily then, and it works just fine today. South Park Theatre has again selected an unusual screwball comedy (instead of, say, Noises Off), so the choice is commendable, especially given the playwright's local roots. And a romantic comedy about middle-aged lost souls is nothing to sneeze at.
As the leads, Michael Shehan and Cindy Fagan Swanson are a peculiar pairing -- these actors certainly look their parts, with her elegant suits and his paint-flecked Levis and T-shirt. They sound their parts, betraying a romantic chemistry that burbles throughout the play. But this production is arduously slow -- the dialogue languid, the emotions contained. Director Joey Yow seems to have breezed through their motivations, and in such a predictable story, where we anticipate the ending before the play's even begun, panache is truly everything.
Panache continues through Sun., June 29. South Park Theatre, Corrigan Drive and Brownsville Road, South Park. 412-831-8552 or www.southparktheatre.com