- The Washington Times - Friday, November 4, 2005

What keeps us together and drives us apart is the force behind “String Fever,” a disarming and sharply observant urban farce by Jacquelyn Reingold at Theater J.

Lily (Melinda Wade) is a music teacher and violinist pixilated by her 40th birthday. Middle age looms, and Lily is still an unfinished sonata. Should she start a family with or without a mate? Should she continue to nurse a broken heart for her ex-boyfriend Matthew (Field Blauvelt), a mopey musician who deserts her for a stint in the loony bin, or plunge into a new relationship with Frank (Gary Sloan), a physicist who seduces her with chat about string theory?

Lily’s complications are not confined to her love life. Everyone she knows appears to be just like the filaments of matter that make up the universe — they are strings that are either open-ended like a hair or closed like a loop.

Her aging father, Artie (Conrad Feininger), is on the receiving end of a medical miracle, which unfortunately results in the breakup of his marriage. Her best friend, Janey (Lynn Chavis), follows the love of her life to the gulag of Iowa, where she finds herself battling cancer largely alone.

Lily’s most intriguing friend is Gisli (Steve Brady), an Icelandic stand-up comedian and recovering alcoholic who keeps in touch through delightfully deranged and upbeat video e-mails.

Lily’s search for connections and “a unified theory of everything” leads to an infatuation with physics, specifically string theory, the idea that the universe is made up of interlaced filaments, strands that are the smallest particles in existence. All of a sudden, Lily swoons as if Josh Groban were singing a solo directly to her at the very whisper of the words “particle vibration,” “quantum mechanics” and “relativity theory.” With mortality and loneliness haunting her every move, Lily clings to the lulling certainties of science.

Even that fails her when the safe, reliable Frank is discovered to be a bit of a freak, preferring to spend nights at home with his cat rather than with a woman.

“String Fever” is billed as “‘Sex and the City’ meets Copenhagen,” and it is a combination of zany characters you might find on TV and enough brain-teasing to make the audience feel smart.

Miss Reingold’s comedy is winsome and thoughtful, but as lively as some of the characters are, they do not seem organic to the piece. Artie, played by Mr. Feininger with gruff and gravelly vitality, seems to have little to do with the play other than to deliver crassly funny diatribes on the pleasures of regular bowel habits.

And what can you make of Gisli? Mr. Brady, a newcomer to Washington audiences, is an unqualified howl as the resolutely chipper Icelandic cut-up, but other than a desultory mention that he is a friend of Lily’s, he seems to have been dropped into the play from another planet.

Miss Reingold’s play is at times as fragmented as ideas on chaos theory, posing a problem for director Peg Denithorne, who did a sublime job two seasons ago with “Talley’s Folly.” Even the set seems disjointed: an assemblage of chairs, musical notations and scientific calculations by Anne Gibson.

The result is a comedy that unfolds in episodes of wildly varying energy levels. Some of the scenes that appear to be a comedy gold mine, such as when Lily is undergoing a medical procedure and hallucinates a conversation with Matthew, are weirdly flat and unaffecting, whereas scenes that you think would be trite, such as when Gisli is in a New Age rehab center in the American Southwest, crackle with off-kilter humor and insight.

As Lily, Miss Wade is an endearing presence, and her search for love bristles with gentle intelligence. As her no-nonsense friend, Miss Chavis brings much-needed backbone into what is essentially a play about ephemera. By the end, Lily has reached beyond the randomness and taken hold of the strands of her life, weaving them into something that, while not perfect, is at least solid and durable.

***

WHAT: “String Fever” by Jacquelyn Reingold

WHERE: Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m.

Saturdays, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Nov. 27.

TICKETS: $14 to $39

PHONE: 800/494-TIXS

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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