It sounds like a joke: "A bookie, a drunk lawyer and a burlesque madam get together for pinochle ..." Their ringleader is Harry, owner of a low-rent gas station called Harry's Friendly Service, and he isn't remotely friendly. They all have their vices: booze, gambling, mob connections and sleazy sexual escapades. But Harry has it worst: His wife died of cancer and he abandoned his daughter to an orphanage. The past 12 years have been a kamikaze run of bad decisions.
It doesn't help matters that Harry's Friendly Service, a world premiere by Rob Zellers, takes place in Youngstown, Ohio, in the 1970s, and that the steel town is about to collapse into full-blown poverty and despair. As produced by the Pittsburgh Public Theater and directed by Ted Pappas, Harry's is a play about a city falling apart and the people crushed in its avalanche. Zellers has described the play as autobiographical -- a re-imagined version of the real Harry's Friendly Service, where a young Zellers visited with his card-playing father.
Zellers has become a household name among local thespians: In 2003, he co-wrote The Chief with Gene Collier, and the one-man-show is among the biggest box-office sensations in Pittsburgh theater history. It's hard to follow such a beloved crowd-pleaser, especially when Zellers is aiming for a dirtier story: As his world crumbles, Harry meets his grown-up daughter, Emily. Will he reject her, as he did before? Or will this plucky nun-to-be win back his soul?
Harry's is full of fun personalities and curious subplots, but one thing stands out: Every character on stage has a heart of gold. Even the mobsters are endearing. By contrast, James Noone has designed a photorealistic set, an exact replica of a scuzzy, skid-row gas station. Harry's friends are so sweet and Midwestern that they seem misplaced, like the cast of Guys and Dolls performing on the set of American Buffalo.
Zellers has taken on big issues, tough characters, difficult choices, but in the end, the playwright obeys his crowd-pleasing impulse. From the first scene, he treats his new characters gently, because he wants them to live happily ever after. This play is designed for the Rust Belt Diaspora, particularly the Youngstownians and Pittsburghers who remember how life was lived in those desperate days. Like The Chief, Harry's is a home-turf winner, but good luck if it plays an away game.
As usual, Ted Pappas has hand-picked the perfect cast, and as usual, Larry John Meyers, Joel Ripka, Tressa Glover and Brooks Almy are a delight to watch. As Harry, Edward James Hyland is a jocular Viking, stomping bow-legged around his garage and telling everybody what's what. This is allegedly Hyland's fifth performance at the Public. With any luck, there'll be a sixth.
Harry's Friendly Service continues thru June 28. O'Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-316-1600 or www.ppt.org