Funny, fun to watch, and perceptive, Sheila Callaghan’s Elevada, directed by Jackson Gray and playing at the Yale Rep through May 16, is a play aimed at the young, but not so young — those who are still looking for fun and for meaningful relationships, those willing to be indulgent, even silly, but trying too for a certain gravitas. Set in a New York of virtual lives, life-threatening disease, recovery from addiction, and trying to connect, it’s a play about adults still trying to figure out what adult means well after college and well before middle age.
Callaghan’s dialogue is key to making Elevada work. She creates lines the actors can voice as personal statements. Rarely does anyone sound like someone in a play, and the laughs come unforced, as when a character puts something in an amusing way or responds with the kinds of miscues or misconstruals that often happen between people. They happen between Ramona (Laurel Casillo) and Khalil (Alfredo Narciso) on their first date as the play opens. They arise between Ramona and her hopeful but wary older sister June (Keira Naughton), and between Khalil and his slacker roommate Owen (Greg Keller). Occasionally, as with the latter’s studied nonchalance, we might feel we’re on way too familiar ground. But then Owen is the kind of guy who knows he’s in the midst of a bromance with Khalil, and he’s not ironic about that.
In fact, Callaghan’s characters are trying to live with a refreshing lack of irony. Ramona has a condition that causes her to want to be fresh and outgoing, to meet and know actual people rather than sit alone online. The irony is that she’s on a first date with Khalil, a rich guy who is going to get richer by selling himself to a corporation, thanks to his online profile. If Ramona’s health fails further she will be far less active, and if Khalil’s plan succeeds, he will no longer exist except as a form of marketing for whichever company buys his contract.
Khalil’s prospectus and Ramona’s prognosis are on parallel paths that might join at the point of infinity or remain separate. Meanwhile, June is shocked that Ramona is forging ahead with life while June can go seven weeks trying to work up the courage to talk to Sideburns, an attractive stranger and Starbucks regular. No one is ironic about not being able to talk to people, and Callaghan’s ear for how “not talking” babbles its way into really talking is very keen.
The show has surprises I’m trying not to divulge, and it has a likeable rhythm, moving through a series of vignettes — each about the time between commercials on a series like Seinfeld (a relevant reference point) — with well-paced aplomb. Between scenes, Kurtis Boetcher’s chameleonic set changes quickly, often sporting Shawn Boyle’s involving projections as backdrops. One for a subway ride is wonderful, while the geometric shapes and Kate Marvin’s interscene sounds give the show’s shifts a bright, active feel. When June says she wants to get out of the city, we have a sense of the busy world buzzing around her.
Not all the vignettes come off quite as well as they might. The first-act curtain is strong with the sense of a turning point that is quietly moving, but the end of the play launches into feel-good territory a bit peremptorily. Is watching a few dance moves — such as the title one, elevada, a way of lifting oneself off the ground or gliding — bound to lift us up? An almost surreal scene, in which Khalil encounters several of his own living effigies, complete with monster-sized puppet heads, peters out without much point. Ramona’s effort to be nothing but bubbly and non-demanding can demand some patience — though Casillo deftly takes on these characteristics and shines at showing us a scared but self-possessed person inside the don’t-mind-me manner.
As Khalil, Narciso gives a fully nuanced performance, moving from self-conscious nerdishness to surprised-by-affection growth. Narciso’s way with Khalil’s qualified comments and breathy breakthroughs into sincerity makes this would-be virtual brand very much a man of our time. Naughton presents June as sympathetic and, despite her recent lack of luck with guys, never pathetic. Keller’s Owen, inhabiting the “nutty roommate” role so familiar from numerous sitcoms, manages to keep us off our guard, mainly because Owen is never on his. Many of the bigger laughs come from his way with an aside.
Even as it traffics in sitcom and rom-com tropes, Elevada involves us in a story about what can happen when people take the time to inhabit space together, sharing the scary and the uncomfortable, becoming vulnerable and even surprisingly graceful. Because that’s what humans who care for one another can do.
Elevada runs at the Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St., through May 16.