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I had an oddly bookish Sunday of world premieres, spent in the company of writers, literary executors, booksellers, editors, and all manner of hangers-on. Can’t say I’m sure what to make of them all exactly, but the level of conversation was certainly more elevated than is customary in most post-9/11 dramatic fiction. It’s not every contemporary play, after all, that will have a verrry minor character—one with perhaps 10 lines altogether—say something as pithy as “In your day, words were revered objects; in mine, they’re playthings.”

It helps, of course, when both the speaker and his listener are writers (one a blogger, the other a respected novelist). And it also helps when the playwright doling out their lines has already worked out the rhythms of their speeches in a novel. That’s the case with The Tattooed Girl, Joyce Carol Oates’ stage adaptation of her 2003 book about Joshua Seigl, an ailing New York author, the son of Holocaust survivors, who hires a barely literate anti-Semite whose body is covered with tattoos as his literary assistant. Her name is Alma—Spanish for “soul”—and he’s a translator, so you can parse out the logic behind his hope that she will, in addition to handling his correspondence and helping him up the stairs in his mansion, also release him from a “paralysis of the soul.”

The play premiered this weekend at Theater J, in a staging by John Vreeke that is so strong in its specifics that it can very nearly leap past the questions that naturally arise from this setup. Even if, like me, you never for a moment believe that the stage Joshua (Michael Russotto) would hire the stage Alma (Michelle Shupe), or that she would last three hours in his employ, you may well be swept along by the performances and some very smart stagecraft.

Start with the staircase that designer Dan Conway sends slashing upward from the lower left corner of the stage to a vanishing point high above. Not only is it striking visually, but the banisterless, book-lined steps touch on virtually all of the play’s concerns: They’re a physical obstacle the desperately ill Joshua must overcome; a symbol of Alma’s learning curve about the Holocaust and about herself; a pathway for social-climbing Dmitri (Christopher Browne), the resentful, malicious have-not who plucked Alma from the streets; and a marker of the vertiginous heights inhabited by Joshua and his manipulative sister, Jetimah (Cam Magee).

Oates has quite a bit going on in the vicinity of that staircase. She has Joshua struggling not just with an ailment his sister describes as “your own toxic self turning against you,” but with writer’s block that has kept him from following up the Holocaust novel that first brought him fame. And Alma is dealing not just with the craving for crystal meth that leaves her vulnerable to thugs (from Dmitri to the scumbags who left her bloodied in the gutter, covered with spidery, veinlike tattoos), but also with a conviction that she hails quite literally from hell. Standing in a hard-edged spotlight, she describes white smoke rising from fissures in her hometown, built atop mines that have been smoldering since before she was born. Jetimah, meanwhile, is managing a lifetime identity crisis, renaming herself so she’ll feel more Jewish and battling parents long in their graves. And a character so subsidiary he’s onstage for less than three minutes (Karl Miller makes him vivid nonetheless) turns out to be related to the others not just by birth but by calling.

These are not simple people, and they’re up there with all their complexities throbbing. Credit the performers—Shupe especially, in a part that requires her to morph from trailer trash to ethereal saint. Credit also the plainspoken eloquence and abundant humor Oates gives them. “Suddenly, my heart is filled with hope,” says Joshua, before pausing just a beat. Then: “Ridiculous—it’s the steroids.” Like the others, he’s trying to cram a novel’s worth of argument into two-and-a-half hours’ traffic on the stage. It’s a valiant effort, and in many respects a successful one, even when you can’t quite buy the underlying situation.

Back in what is sometimes termed the golden age of Broadway, there was a species of winking, vaguely racy romantic comedy that became obsolete when TV sitcoms started dealing not just with families, but with dating. Plays such as The Seven Year Itch, Any Wednesday, and Mary, Mary were enormously popular with theater audiences in the ’50s and ’60s. In the intervening decades, they’ve pretty much been relegated to stages situated near steam-table buffets.

It wouldn’t have occurred to me that there was much of a demand for resurrecting the genre, but to judge from the audience reaction to the first act of Norman Allen’s Fallen From Proust, now getting its world premiere at the Signature Theatre, I’d say there’ll be a decently receptive market should the right vehicle come along. Fallen From Proust isn’t that vehicle—at least not without some serious rewriting—but it certainly cracks wise with confidence, and for the better part of an hour, it had the crowd at its final preview chortling along happily as its trio of flighty 30-something San Franciscans positioned themselves at the points of an unlikely romantic triangle. After intermission, the playwright allows reality to intrude, in the form of a comparatively down-to-earth New Yorker, and the evening’s central conceit quickly falls apart. Still, the setup is sprightly enough.

It involves hard-driving Gary (Damon Boggess), a hotshot editor of young-adult fiction who, at the urging of his perky girlfriend, Michelle (Hope Lambert), is bringing a roommate into his burgundy-hued, Bay-viewed, Sausalito bachelor pad. Michelle’s no longer amused by Gary’s gadgets (a single remote control operates everything from the lights and stereo to the curtains and microwave) or his reluctance to commit. Roger (Michael Glenn), looking owlish in thick-rimmed glasses and goatee, is just what Michelle thinks their relationship needs—someone who’ll side with her when she requires an ally, and maybe make Gary jealous. Slightly deflated when Roger says he’s a gay Republican, she soon falls into a pleasant enough rhythm with the two men—dishing with Roger, sleeping with Gary—only to later realize that their threesome isn’t all that different from the twosome she had before. In comedies of this sort, threesomes are, by their very nature, unsustainable, so when Roger announces an unrequited crush, all bets are off.

That’s the first act in a nutshell. Act 2 brings in an NYC callboy—not to multiply the possibilities, but to diminish them—and though Alan (Daniel Frith) proves as quick with a one-liner as his Left Coast cohorts, the comedy soon curdles. Partly this is because Will Pomerantz’s frenetic staging starts to look choreographed when he must keep four people from bumping into each other in designer James Kronzer’s stylishly overdressed apartment. But there’s another problem, as well: The playwright provides a steady stream of one-liners—about Gary’s job (“Mary Queen of Scots–for–kids is a hard sell”), Roger’s sexuality (“Men are the most fucked-up creatures on earth, and in a gay relationship, there are two of them”), and Michelle’s conviction that she understands all things gay (“I worked in catering”)—but he can’t seem to sustain a more extended comic conceit. That titular reference to Proust notwithstanding, there’s little apart from quick mentions of The Seagull, A Tale of Two Cities, and kid-lit serials in the first scene—and to The Three Musketeers as the evening is winding down—to suggest that anyone on stage has ever set foot in a library. And wouldn’t you think there’d be an Act 2 payoff for that remote-control device? The jokes are funny enough, and the performers ingratiating, but the characters are so unprepossessing. And the conclusion Allen is aiming them toward so conventional, that after intermission, the energy simply drains from the proceedings.CP