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In Glassheart, a desaturated riff on the centuries-old European folktale “Beauty and the Beast,” that hairy mope has traded in his castle for a Chicago walk-up, the kind bookstore clerks can afford. This we know because the sleep-deprived manic pixie dream girl who just moved in next door has come to work in a bookstore. The beast’s lamp—apparently the last of the walking, talking home appliances who like their master yearn to be restored to human form—is determined to play matchmaker because, as you’ll recall, only true love can break the curse that reduced a shallow prince to a drooling, shedding, feral monster, at least part of the time.
The motives of all concerned grow more opaque in young playwright Reina Hardy’s wobbly gloss on the legend, staged in the round by Rorschach Theatre, which has worked miracles with this sort of baroque, grown-up fantasy in the past. (The play has only one physical location, but Robbie Hayes’ set is a chamber of secrets.) In this telling, there’s a witch who shows up every so often to inject a measure of threat, though her long-term plan is never clear. “Give me your eyes!” she commands, before forcibly reading the lamp’s mind. Over the course of two-and-a-half underpowered hours, Hardy struggles to find a tone, cycling through Netflix-style niche categories like Quirky Indie Hostage Romance and Adult Fairy-Tale Horror, only to replace them on the digital shelf: Just browsing! Unfortunately, a show that’s only a little funny and a little scary and a little mysterious never quite accumulates into anything very big.
Despite the shortcomings of the material, the four-member cast is solid and often much better than that, especially Natalie Cutcher as Aiofe, Glassheart’s version of the tale’s titular beauty. True to the manic pixie dream girl rulebook, she overlooks the beast’s abysmal social skills and immediately invites him out for coffee. Cutcher, whose eyes are big and bright enough that she’d look right at home in Disney’s animated version of this story, digs into her tart speeches with a, well, manic energy that suggests she can’t shut herself off. Handsome Andrew Keller sells his occasional fits of snarling rancor but would seem more beastlike if his beard weren’t so immaculately groomed. And as that poor lamp, to whom Aiofe gives the plucked-from-a-dictionary name Only, Megan Reichelt delivers a subtly shaded performance (sorry!) that lets us see the longing beneath her incandescent exterior (sorry!). One hopes the functioning lightbulbs in her hat are fluorescents or LEDs.
Director Lee Liebeskind shows a deft hand in the show’s bittersweet closing moments, which hint at a man’s longing for connection with his device not unlike the one dramatized in Spike Jonze’s film Her. In that movie, the next-generation operating system voiced by Scarlet Johanssen was programmed to serve her master’s every whim. In Glassheart, though, at least one and possibly both of the two characters played by fetching young women are meant to be human. It’s too bad Hardy didn’t give either one of them more to do than to try to figure out how they can help yet another financially independent dude of European extraction shake off his funk—and his hooves—in order to become his best self.