Opening Nights: Emerald City

Learning Seattle's codes.

Sometimes you can have it both ways. S.P. Miskowski's Emerald City is both a narrow, niche play about Seattle's eccentricities (and delusions of grandeur) and a grander exploration of love's mercurial nature. It's populated by an odd assortment of transplants and native misfits who are often chillier than the weather, but Miskowski isn't aiming for satire in this very ambitious new play. Rather, she offers a bemused, omniscient commentary on the rites of our insular metropolis. If you're a newcomer to the city like me, still trying to learn its codes, Emerald City may feel like the story of your life, too.

The play begins in Irvine, California, where Scarlett (the redoubtable Jennifer Pratt) is still smarting from her experience in Seattle, where she recently lost her reporting job, her house, and her girlfriend. Now she's repartnered to a high-strung homebody named Lillian (Megan Ahiers), who dotes on her by whipping up delicacies in the kitchen and blogging about them to pass the time. When Scarlett's literary agent (Shawnmarie Stanton) convinces Scarlett to investigate a real-estate story back in Seattle, she reluctantly agrees. Lillian panics at this disruption in their relationship, so she secretly follows Scarlett back to the site of so many bittersweet memories.

So while Scarlett is out interviewing a woman (Gretchen Douma) who won't sell her house to developers, Lillian is knocking around Pike Place Market, adorning herself with tattoos, and seeking the troll beneath the Fremont Bridge. Scarlett is crashing on the couch of her old college pal Tina (Morgan Rowe), who happens to lead downtown tours for visitors. Lillian surreptitiously books a tour with Tina to learn more about the city and her lover's past. The play then begins to move in concentric circles, drawing all these disparate characters together—with Lillian blossoming in the Rain City even as longtime Seattleites Scarlett and Tina drown.

Produced by Live Girls! Theater and directed by Meghan Arnette, Emerald City is both a challenge for actors to perform and a delight for audiences to relish. Miskowski's text packs more laughs into two-and-a-half hours than eight seasons of Two and a Half Men, but it's also achingly sad. In the play's final minutes, Miskowski performs a trick you'll seldom see onstage anywhere: The performers bounce back and forth between a pathos that will rip your heart out and a kind of manic glee that makes laughter impossible to resist.

The costumes and tech work here are all on a shoestring, but that's just fine, because it leaves the focus right where it belongs: on Miskowski's writing and the talents bringing it to life. However, the play could stand another half-hour of pruning (particularly an epilogue that asks more questions than it answers). And Emerald City is so Seattle-centric that it'll play better here than on the road. But that's a strength as well. With so many inside jokes and spot-on insights, it's a jewel we can call our own.

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