SALT LAKE CITY — What do a quirky flight attendant, a voiceover actor, a pseudo-religious leader, and a self-help author have in common? They are all cosmically linked in a search for the meaning of life . . . that is, if you believe in that sort of thing. There is a fair bit of existentialism mixed in with the comedy in the world premiere Mr. Perfect by William Missouri Downs at Salt Lake Acting Company, making for a night of deep thoughts and the occasional hearty laugh.
Zooey (played by Emilee Starr) is a flight attendant infatuated with audio books and obsessed with the idea of romance. This obsession, despite Zooey’s “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” archetype, is not endearing, but a little concerning and possibly terrifying. I’m not saying Zooey is unlikable. Starr gives her a wide-eyed wonder that is entrancing most of the time. But Zooey’s journey to enlightenment has some rough spots.
Before you think this a negative review, let me explain. Having just completed the umpteenth listening of the salaciously titled 50 Shades of the First Lady on her way to work, Zooey fatefully discovers that Jeffrey, the voice actor responsible for her listening pleasure, is on her flight, and they bond over the need for an unsalted peanut option. This naturally should result in an attempted tryst in the plane lavatory, right? Jeffrey isn’t a sleazy guy, and this moment between Zooey and Jeffrey does have an air of romance and innocence about it. Ryon Sharette plays Jeffrey as likable and sincere, a classic “nice guy,” and a chance meeting with a girl who is “different” makes this sound like the ultimate “meet cute” at the beginning of a romantic comedy.
Director John Caywood smartly keeps the action within the washroom taut, highlighting the physical comedy of the encounter happening in a such a cramped space. I found myself rooting for the fling to happen because those two crazy kids seemed just kooky enough to make a quicky entrance into the Mile High Club into a cute story they could retell someday. However, Zooey wants to listen to her audio book, and Jeffrey got turned off. They compromised on Jeffrey narrating the encounter, firmly planting this scene in Weirdsville. Then they argued about in which tense the narration should occur and things totally got derailed. I liked that Jeffrey wanted more than a one night stand and promised to call, and my 20-year-old self sympathized with Zooey trying to pass a Jane Austen plot off as her life story. But I found myself cringing more than laughing—and I laughed a bit.
Though the seemingly fated affair failed to happen, the lovers move on to new adventure. Jeffrey finds a successful authoress, Donna, using his “working voice” while trolling the audio book section at the Strand Book Store. Donna is grandly played by Stephanie Howell, in a feline and liquid manner, like a temptress out of a Fellini movie. Meanwhile, Zooey has gone looking for religion and stumbled upon “Father” Ralph at the Church of the Holy Rules, an organization with ridiculous ceremonies and nonsensical doctrine. Ralph, as played by Darrin Doman, is slightly arrogant and insipid but he means well. All Zooey has to hear is “Father Ralph” (like the Richard Chamberlain character from The Thorn Birds), and she is off to the races. Naturally, these new encounters connect Jeffrey and Zooey back to each other through a serious of unlikely events as all four characters embark on some version of the search for the meaning of life.
I hesitate to share anymore plot points for fear of serious spoilers. There is a certain amount of plaintive desperateness to the way that the events unfold that makes Mr. Pefect an example of subtle social commentary, though the comical themes are much broader and easier to see. There are shades of French farces like 8 Women, disaffected whimsy as exemplified in Wes Anderson movies, and the sunshine-filled yet unrealistic optimism and coincidence of a Rock Hudson/Doris Day movie. All of these layers are extremely cohesive. The ensemble is solid and the direction is strong, and the designs completely the support the overall presentation. Brenda Van Der Wiel‘s costumes are eccentric and colorful, yet modern. Keven Myhre‘s set resembles a vaguely retro lounge, but is utilitarian and seamlessly transitions to all of the locations with the help of windows inset with projection screens and James M. Craig‘s soft and suggestive lighting. Jessica Greenberg‘s sound design evoked the right vibe for the show. Greenberg compiled a wonderfully eclectic soundtrack that underscored the events with charm and a little bit of irony.
I liked Mr. Perfect. I think that Zooey and Jeffrey’s love story is an interesting one, though I think how they got to where they end up is a little sad. There is lots of humor in Downs’s script, especially for grammar nerds and literature lovers. But I don’t think it is a complete winner. The audience on the night I attended was laughing warmly and seemed to be enjoying themselves, but my viewing partner ( a 31-year-old male) was miserable. He told me that Zooey scared him, and he didn’t get most of the references. I could see his point, but for some audiences members Mr. Perfect could be true love.