Review: Local Playwright Bruce Graham’s ‘Something Intangible’ hits the stage at Spotlight Theatre

Bruce Graham’s “Something Intangible” is onstag at Spotlight Theatre through March 18 at the company’s venue in the Swarthmore United Methodist Church on Park Avenue.

By Ellen Wilson Dilks

“Something Intangible”can’t be touched physically, but most of the time it is understandable or even felt in the heart.

~Vocabulary.com

Spotlight Theatre in Swarthmore continues their current season with a production of Bruce Graham’s comic homage to the Disney brothers, “Something Intangible.” Directed by Josh Gosselin, performances run through March 18, 2017 at the company’s venue in the Swarthmore United Methodist Church on Park Avenue.

A recipient of the Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award, “Something Intangible” explores familial bonds—as well as the creative process—with great humor and warmth.  It’s Hollywood, 1941, and two brothers (with polar opposite personalities) are struggling to expand their animated film studio. Creative whirlwind Tony Wiston has a vision to go beyond his popular “Petey Pup” character short films and create a masterpiece of animation set to classical music. (Think Fantasia.)  Tony (at times seeming like a mad scientist) blusters, demands perfection of all and pushes everyone to their limits. Dale—the play’s narrator—is the numbers guy.   Loyal Dale manages everything: unrealistic budgets, unpredictable Tony and unrelenting deadlines; he’s also trying to keep the family he loves so much (including a mentally challenged son) and his own self-esteem as he’s caught in the whirlwind of Tony’s feverish genius.

Local treasure Bruce Graham has been writing for the stage since the mid 80s. His scripts are smart, funny, and often touching, examinations of the human condition.  A Ridley Park native, Graham performed locally for years (he starred as The Elephant Man at Players Club of Swarthmore, among other roles) while teaching at Ridley High School.  He’s never forgotten his roots: a number of his works are set in and around the Philadelphia area. There’s even a Philly joke in “Something Intangible”.  He began his playwriting career in 1984 with “Burkie,” produced by the Philadelphia Festival Theatre for New Plays; Graham subsequently became the Festival’s Playwright-In-Residence, as well as Artistic Director for two years. He was awarded consecutive Barrymore Awards for “Best New Play” for “Any Given Monday” and “Something Intangible”. Graham is the first American playwright to be invited to the Galway Arts Festival; they produced “The Outgoing Tide” and “Stella & Lou” in back-to-back seasons. “Something Intangible” had its world premiere at the Arden Theatre (where many of Graham’s works have debuted) in the 2008-2009 season.

Director Gosselin keeps things moving nicely; the actors deliver Graham’s lines with a brisk sharpness and scene changes are accomplished quickly and relatively quietly.  Gosselin and his actors seem to understand the message and their characters nicely. As Tony Wiston, Brandon Young is brimming with energy and bombast—yet he charms the audience as well, giving Tony likability in spite of his selfishness.  He also delivers a nicely calibrated shift into obsessiveness as Tony struggles to produce his masterpiece. Christopher Tolomeo is the perfect balance as Dale. Tolomeo provides a strong steady center to the production, showing us a man who cares deeply for his family—including his often-abrasive brother.  Susan Blair (the only female character, unfortunately) is spot-on as Dale’s therapist Sonia Feldman; she deftly acts the role of the one who gently gets their patients to look inside themselves to find their real issues.  As the young up-and-coming studio animator Leo Baxter, James Emmi is all gangly awkwardness desperately trying to win Tony’s approval. It’s a very genuine performance. Michael Mogar plays the thankless role of financier Doc Bartelli.  He’s the one who keeps saying no (to Dale) as Tony racks up more and more debt with overtime rewrites and reshoots. Mogar brings some nice touches to the production. Finally, there’s egotistical conductor Gustav Von Meyerhoff—played to the hilt by Joe Tranchitella.  Tranchitella seems to be having the time of his life as the womanizing and over-rated maestro Tony hires to conduct the orchestra for his film.

Technically, the production holds its own.  The stage is divided into two spaces: the therapist’s office and Tony’s office at the studio.  Serving as his own set designer, Gosselin splits the space seamlessly, allowing Dale to move from space to space with ease as required. I would have preferred a few more angles—and a little more clutter in Tony’s office to hint at someone who never stops.  Andrew Montemayer’s lighting serves the production nicely, setting the right mood as needed; and Gosselin’s soundscape supports things well.  Costumes are by Sue Turisi, Roz Gosselin and the cast; they’re well executed, but a little more 40s flavor would have gone a long way.

Opening night was a tight performance, so I know things will continue to grow as this talented cast explores the play during each performance.  If you want some good laughs (there’s a bit of adult language though) go catch “Something Intangible” before they fold up their tent on March 18. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, and Sundays at 2. Tickets are $15  for evening shows and $12  for the Sunday afternoon ones.  Spotlight performs at the Swarthmore United Methodist Church, located at 129 Park Avenue in Swarthmore, PA 19081. For information, or to order tickets, visit their website at http://spotlighttheatrepa.org     Patrons can also call 610-328-1079.