The premise of POZ, a play by Michael Aman now getting its world premiere in Fort Lauderdale thanks to Island City Stage, may be off-putting or barely believable to some.
But know this: Aman’s comedy (yes, POZ is most definitely funny, as well as insightful, touching and deftly written) is a largely wonderful new work that is likely to have a life beyond this first production.
Island City has been on a roll since winning six Carbonell Awards for last season’s production of The Timekeepers, and the momentum continues with POZ. (The Timekeepers returns, this time to the West Boca Theatre Company, Dec. 3-21.) Performed at Empire Stage, the play blends realism with other-worldly fantasy in a script that’s fresh, smart and laced with inside-theater references — not surprising, given that Aman has a doctorate in theater history.
The simple story centers around Edison (Pierre Tannous), an aspiring musical theater performer who pays his bills by waiting table at Joe Allen in Manhattan in 2003. Edison has talent, no health insurance and leukemia. Though he’s HIV negative, when he learns that a program for HIV-positive men would get him the chemotherapy he needs, he turns to a web site for “POZ” guys to set up a date. Desperate times, desperate measures.
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So there’s that challenging premise. Yet POZ doesn’t play out in a way that’s weird or unsettling. On the contrary, from its first moments, when Jessica Peterson appears as a no-longer-young actress struggling to climb the stairs in her apartment building with its forever-broken elevator, you know from Aman’s writing that you’re in for a treat.
Director Michael Leeds, Island City’s associate artistic director and winner of last year’s Carbonell as best director of a play for The Timekeepers, has cast POZ beautifully, and the actors tap into the piece’s lighthearted, stylish spirit. The one character that doesn’t quite work is Arthur, though that’s through no fault of actor Christian Vandepas. Arthur is both a link among the others and a symbol of the time before effective treatment commuted what was too frequently a death sentence. He is meant to be comforting, but tonally, Arthur seems to be in another play, and this one might be better off without him.
Peterson, a Carbonell winner too seldom seen on South Florida stages these days, grandly owns the role of Catherine, an actress who has seen it, done it and played it all. She’s imperious but clearly vulnerable as she delivers some of Aman’s sharpest lines. Likewise, Jeffrey Bruce as a caseworker (and proud theater queen) named Oscar and Janet Weakley as Maia, a kooky lesbian medium who happens to be Oscar’s ex, ride the waves of Aman’s comedy like champion surfers.
In the Camille role of Edison, Tannous is sweetly charismatic and captivating, so that it’s easy to understand why everyone who meets him wants to help him. He also shares a small sample of his fine singing voice as Edison belts Mary Todd’s Song (with music by Leeds), supposedly a fondly remembered solo from the only musical Catherine ever attempted.
As Robert, a once sexually voracious Log Cabin Republican lawyer who might represent the solution to Edison’s problem, Larry Buzzeo conveys the humor and crumbling defenses that just might make an unlikely pairing work.
The design team — Peter A. Lovello (costumes), Preston Bircher (lighting), David Hart (sound) and Michael McClain (whose set seems to have been dipped in an endless blue sky with fluffy white clouds) — does its part to bring this new work creatively to life. With POZ, Island City adds to its reputation as a company whose work is significant and engaging.
If you go
What: World premiere of ‘POZ’ by Michael Aman.
Where: Island City Stage production at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Dr., Fort Lauderdale.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday, through Nov. 23.
Information: 954-519-2533 or www.islandcitystage.org.