So you’re driving along through what you think is a drearily familiar landscape, when suddenly there’s a bend in the road. All at once, in a single click of perception, everything looks slightly but revealingly different, and not just where you are now, but also where you’ve been. The view in the rearview mirror has changed.
That’s the route taken by John Pollono in “Lost Girls,” the ambling and ultimately quite moving comic drama that opened on Monday night at the Lucille Lortel Theater. Mr. Pollono, an actor and writer whose previous plays include the dark teaser “Small Engine Repair,” is a deft practitioner of the sort of twist-in-the-tale narratives that are mostly associated with short-story writers of earlier eras, like O. Henry and W. Somerset Maugham
Such compact fictions tend to work better on the page than on the stage, since theatergoers can become impatient with expositional setups for reveals they may not know are coming. And the long opening scene of “Lost Girls,” an MCC production directed by Jo Bonney and starring a tough-as-beef-jerky Piper Perabo, is entertaining enough but hardly grips the attention.
In it, we find Maggie (Ms. Perabo), a clerk in an outlet store, and her mother, Linda (a companionably trashy Tasha Lawrence), swapping foul-mouthed insults as a snowstorm rages outside the home they share in Manchester, N.H. Mr. Pollono has visited this town — and some similarly thwarted inhabitants — before in “Small Engine Repair” (which Ms. Bonney directed for MCC). But the zinger-stoked dialogue, and the amiably prickly atmosphere of loving blue-collar family members cohabiting in dead-end domesticity, also suggest an R-rated episode of “Roseanne.”
That’s not meant as a dis on “Roseanne,” whose run in the 1980s and ’90s was filled with classic paradigms of the half-hour television comedy. But we expect something more original from a play that’s going to stretch into a full 90 minutes. Even when we learn that Maggie’s car is missing and her teenage daughter hasn’t shown up for school that day, shortly before the Christmas holidays, the prevailing sensibility still feels sitcom-dram formulaic.
Enter Maggie’s ex-husband, Lou (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), a soft-centered cop, and his wife, Penny (Meghann Fahy), a perky born-again Christian, filled with greeting card wisdom. As you might expect, their arrival prompts a new volley of barbs among people with all sorts of reasons to resent one another. What holds our interest is the bedrock of bitterness on which Ms. Perabo has built her character, and the piquant hints of a fully shared, ambivalent past between Maggie and Lou.
Then the scene changes, from the makeshift coziness of Maggie’s living room to the shabby sterility of a cheap motel room. (Richard Hoover did the appropriately standard-issue sets.) And there we find a high-school-age girl and boy (Lizzy DeClement and Josh Green), who have evidently run away from home in a stolen family car during that raging snowstorm.
The kids seem to share, at least in part, a cynical acceptance of shrunken, claustrophobic lives with the adult characters we’ve already met. But being a lot younger than Maggie and company, they also have the luminous vibrancy of still lingering hopes. And as played with sweet ingenuousness by Mr. Green and premature, self-lacerating jadedness by Ms. DeClement (an actress to keep your eye on), these two are an irresistibly mismatched, made-for-each-other couple.
The rest of “Lost Girls” unfolds as a counterpoint between bright, youthful expectations and the gray resignation of characters who in their 30s have already slid into middle age. The play’s title starts to acquire a deep-blue aura of predestination.
Maggie, we learn, belongs to a third generation of women who have seen their lives derailed by early pregnancies, followed by serial self-sabotaging relationships. And there may be a part of you — the part that gets moist-eyed reading A. E. Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young” — that thinks it might be better if those runaway teenagers didn’t survive their dangerous, icy trip. Ms. DeClement’s character knows whereof she speaks when she asks with dawning alarm, “What if it never gets any better than this?”
A sentimental view of life as a cul-de-sac hasn’t been virgin territory in world drama at least since Chekhov’s mopey Russians first hit the stage. And nothing in Mr. Pollono’s script — including that perspective-changing twist I mentioned earlier — adds much that’s new to what became the default sensibility of naturalistic modern literature.
But Mr. Pollono invests his characters with such affectionate observational detail that he makes us like them, too. Neither he nor Ms. Bonney’s cast condescend to them, either — not even Ms. Fahy, whose peppy and cliché-laden Penny would seem designed for target practice. Mr. Moss-Bachrach is so self-effacingly right in his part that it’s easy to overlook how effortlessly good he is.
As generational bookends of a feminine species of a particular class and place, Ms. Perabo and Ms. DeClement are excellent. Best known for her starring role on television’s “Covert Affairs,” Ms. Perabo has the harder part to play. Her Maggie has reached a point where internalized hostility has nearly sucked her dry, and Ms. Perabo shouldn’t and doesn’t try to charm.
Ms. DeClement has more latitude to seduce the audience. She doesn’t push it, but as a study in evaporating dewiness, she’s a guaranteed heartbreaker. The implicit link between her and Ms. Perabo’s characters is enough to allow us to think that Mr. Pollono’s lost girls might possibly, eventually find their way. Not that they should get their hopes up.
Original Story appeared in The New York Times.