Stephen Kaplan’s “Tracy Jones,” making its New Jersey premiere through Nov. 5 at Art House Productions in Jersey City, began life five years ago as part of the theater’s INKubator program for new playwrights. The intervening pandemic has given this poignant, one-act comedy resonance and context it might have lacked otherwise. If there is one thing we learned during those dark days of shutdowns, quarantines and social distancing, it’s what it feels like to be lonely.
The black box theater in Art House Productions’ beautiful new building in the Powerhouse Arts District has played host to several musical performances since opening, but “Tracy Jones” is the first play to be produced in the space. It’s a brave choice, and a bit ironic, since a crippling fear of people not showing up drives the narrative. But that shouldn’t be a concern. The show is well worth seeing — funny and touching, if messily executed.
The lights blink on in the proscenium-less space, revealing our titular protagonist, a middle-aged bank manager. A woman without family or friends, Tracy almost lost her job trying to establish a relationship with one of the clients whose signatures she collects daily on account and loan applications. Helen Coxe portrays Tracy as a woman wracked by self-doubt, if not self-loathing; despite her job, she has become convinced that her life has no meaning. But she also is wise enough to know that things won’t change unless she makes something happen.
So Tracy invests her life savings in finding every woman named Tracy Jones she can; she prints and mails hand-written invitations, invades online message boards, posts flyers, erects a billboard, and even hires a blimp, all asking the world’s Tracy Joneses to convene at the Jones Street Bar & Grill, a dubious franchise wings joint. The idea is that their common name will provide a basis for sisterhood, or friendship, or, at the very least, a night that Tracy won’t have to spend alone.
It’s an idea that, as soon as we hear it explained to the bar’s overeager teenaged party host (played with manic perkiness by Ciara Chanel), we know is doomed to fail.
Set designer Jacob Brown does a masterful job of transforming the stage into the bar’s dowdy party room, complete with platters of crudités no one will ever eat and pitchers of Diet Coke that Tracy gulps down waiting for her guests to arrive. She has planned the night down to the minute — food and drinks, party games, a PowerPoint presentation about the name Tracy Jones, even take-home gifts. All she needs is a room full of Tracy Joneses who, like Godot, aren’t coming.
But guests do arrive, eventually — two of them. The second Tracy, an older woman (Therese McGinn), brings matronly sophistication, maternal generosity and a secret. The third Tracy turns out to be a man (Fernando Contreras) who didn’t read the invitation closely and bears the scars of a recent tragedy. Through banter, Tracy 1’s desperation, the party host’s indomitable hospitality and some slapstick involving a revolving door, connections are made, secrets revealed, a bond forged.
“Tracy Jones” keeps you laughing even as it makes you wince at its heroine’s flailing attempts to make new friends. Coxe plays frumpy Tracy 1 as a mix of desperation and determination — pitiable but admirable at the same time. The male Tracy almost seems an afterthought until he delivers a soliloquy that is both heartbreaking and character-defining.
McGinn’s stylish dress, impeccable silver hair and literary knowledge set her apart as Tracy 2; wisely, she underplays her role, bringing exactly the right tone to the erudite matron who is not all she appears to be. But it’s Chanel as the effervescent but overbearing party-host-with-the-most who steals the show, gushily following her employer’s cheesy rulebook to the letter and inspiring many of the show’s heartiest laughs.
The main character here believes that name is destiny. And that a Tracy is different than a Tracie or, God forbid, a Tracee. And that the rut she finds herself in was preordained by her plain, boring moniker. And if that’s true for her, then it must be true for all the other girls who had to grow up as Tracy Jones, who would welcome the chance to share their stories and their unhappiness and their loneliness with others who shared the same fate.
That’s projection, not logic, of course. The characters in this play find only one thing they truly have in common, and that is feeling alone. In the end, we are all Tracy Jones.
“Tracy Jones” runs through Nov. 5 at Art House Productions in Jersey City. Visit arthouseproductions.org.
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