by Mike Hoban
‘When January Feels Like Summer’ – Written by Cori Thomas; Directed by Benny Sato Ambush; Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland; Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg; Costume Design by Leslie Held; Sound Design by Dewey Dellay. Presented by the Underground Railway Theater at the Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge through November 13
When January Feels Like Summer, the charming slice of life comedy now being mounted by the Underground Railway Theater Company in Central Square, is a testament to the idea that ordinary (appearing) lives can be quite extraordinary if you take the time to look closely enough. Set in and around a New York bodega, January begins as a rather routine dramedy, but slowly sucks us in to the point where we care deeply about the characters by play’s end – despite their cringe-worthy (and all-too-human) foibles.
Nirmala (Sanaa Kazi), a thirty-something Indian woman, runs the bodega and lives with her transgendered accountant brother Ishan, who announces at the beginning of the play that he is quitting his job and will begin living fully as a trans woman named Indira (Mesma Belsare) from now on. Nirmala has her own challenges, as her husband (a porn “enthusiast” who never once touched her during the marriage) has been on life support for three years and is showing no signs of improving. Indira has been trying to convince Nirmala to pull the plug so that she can begin to really live her life – and also pay for Indira’s sexual re-assignment surgery when she collects the insurance money upon his death. If it sounds like the setup for a morality play, fear not, this a romantic comedy through and through – just not a very conventional one. Unbeknownst to Nirmala, she is the apple of the eye of one of her customers, Joe (David J. Curtis), a somewhat shy African-American sanitation worker for the city (who is trying to overcome his own unfortunate foray into marriage) who is trying to work up the courage to ask her for a date during his shopping excursions.
A secondary plot involves buddies Jeron (Marc Pierre) and DeVaun (Seth Hill), a pair of post high school Burger King workers who provide most of the belly laughs for this very funny work. Jeron is the brains of the duo, but is clueless when it comes to women. DeVaun is clueless about nearly everything else except “getting with women”, and also delivers hysterical malapropisms with the effortlessness of the late Borscht Belt comic Norm Crosby. Inadvertently, they end up embarking on a search for meaning to their existence when a textbook case of how homophobic misinformation can go horribly wrong ends up with serendipitously comic results.
The transformation of the characters begins when DeVaun becomes unnerved after a “flamboyant” man from his mother’s church touches his shoulder and asks him to come with him, and he interprets the act as a sexual overture. His sense of morality outraged and his masculinity challenged, he and Jeron decide to “protect the neighborhood children” from the predator by putting up posters in local bodegas, warning the neighborhood about the man. As horrifying as this sounds, the well-intentioned bad idea turns out remarkably well, and paves the way for a series of healing interactions between the play’s five characters.
January does not impress early on, but gathers momentum as the actors move from fairly stock portrayals to become three dimensional. Playwright Thomas has a terrific ear for dialogue, especially the comic variety, and while the plot points stretch credulity, they never feel overly contrived. It’s also a beautifully integrated depiction of what real diversity looks like when it’s not theatrically forced, with Indira being the most fully realized character (thanks in part to an outstanding performance by Belsare). So when she takes an extraordinarily risky chance on love, we hold our collective breath that she will come out unscathed.
Director Sato elicits strong performances from the entire cast, and newcomer Seth Hill (junior at BU) makes an especially noteworthy debut as DeVaun. The scene where he attempts to educate his smarter friend Jeron (Marc Pierre) in the art of seducing a woman is alone worth the price of admission. The set design is simple but fairly brilliant in its utility (there are a half-dozen locations on the tight stage), and sound designer Dewey Dellay paints a believable city soundscape. “When January Feels Like Summer” is a fresh take on the traditional romantic comedy, and a welcome break from the madness of this insane election season. Go. For more info, go to: https://www.centralsquaretheater.org/