Off Broadway Reviews
Who would have guessed that, in addition to being the crossword editor for the New York Times, Will Shortz also moonlights as Cupid? Not I, that's for sure. But playwright Jerry Mayer made the connection with his play 2 Across, which just opened at St. Luke's Theatre. In it, a man named Josh and a woman named Janet, on an apparently endless Bay Area Rapid Transit ride from the San Francisco Airport, are united by their shared adoration for Shortz's work on the most difficult morning of the puzzling week, Saturday. And darned if they don't get together faster than you can fill in "FORMULAIC" in space 23 down.
Well, okay, it's not quite that fast. Clocking in at a solid 90 minutes, 2 Across, despite its playful premise and the likable presence of Andrea McArdle and Kip Gilman as the couple-to-be, is slow going. Because, really, even if director Evelyn Rudie provided the most sprightly and sparkling staging (which she doesn'tshe does her best, but they're in a train car, for goodness sake), there are still all the standard clichés to cycle through.
They don't like each other at first? Check.
Different religions? Check. (He's Jewish, she's Catholic.)
Obvious romantic obstacles? Of course. (They both have rings, so of course they must both be married!)
Obvious personal obstacles? Naturally. (She just sent her pot-smoking 18-year-old son off to the Marines, he's coming off a period of unemployment following leaving his father's button company, and is poised to interview for a major position at Banana Republic.)
Irreconcilable crossword philosophies? Need you ask? (She looks down on him for solving with pencil, which to her represents commitment issues; she's a psychologist, you see. And she tends to get so invested in blazing through the things that she misses the simple joys along the way.)
It's not exactly the freshest territory after ten minutes, and after an hour, there's not much to do but to wait for them to reach the obvious outcome, in pretty much the most obvious way. There's nothing inherently wrong with writing something flimsy, as long as it works on its own terms and has fun along the way. But 2 Across feels as though it's straining to be effortless and build the structure needed for its fluff, and that's rather less enjoyable.
There are few big laughs and not even much in the way of zippy wordplay, which is odd for a show that spends so much time idolizing purveyors of crackling brain power. Mayer thinks we're more interested in the psychology underlying their puzzling abilities, so we get a lot of taunting (from Josh) and mock therapy sessions (from Janet), though he doesn't dig far enough beneath the surface for either to seem more like a person than a symbolic representation of one.
At least McArdle brings a bright (if occasionally stiff) vivacity to Janet, which keeps her from being entirely insufferable. And Gilman tempers Josh's harsh edges enough that a man who could otherwise be easily annoying projects a workable, backhanded charm. And when the two are focused on each other and their mutual goal of completing the crossword first, the evening is sufficiently pleasant, even if it is dopey and predictable.
But as it wears on, you wish Mayer push his intriguing ideas further, rather than letting them fall by the wayside as early as happens here. Their shared obsession should open dramatic doors, not close them in our face. If they love crossword puzzles, we need to love them, too, or the whole gambit is not going to be believable. And, ultimately, it's not. If you don't love Shortz coming into 2 Across, you aren't going to love him any more than Josh or Janet coming out.