In real-estate parlance, Andrew Gerle’s play, “Renovations” — in its world premiere at White Plains Performing Arts Center through April 3 — has good bones.
Instead of Ray Kinsella having a catch with his dad in an Iowa cornfield, we get Manhattan magazine writer John trying to reconnect with his crotchety plasterer father, Tully, by buying a fixer-upper they can renovate together.
If they build it, they will bond.
The premise is strong, as is the director Mikhael Tara Garver’s cast at WPPAC, a venue dedicated to showcasing new works.
Todd Cerveris (“South Pacific”) is John; Lenny Wolpe (the original Feldzeig in Broadway’s “The Drowsy Chaperone”) as Tully; and Tony-nominee Liz Larsen (“Most Happy Fella”) and Ken Forman (“Wilder, Wilder, Wilder”) play a host of well-executed supporting roles.
At its core, “Renovations” is about two different men who share the same blood: Tully bloodies his hands working steady, building things that last generations; John works at a keyboard, a freelancer, writing articles.
Wolpe strikes just the right notes as Tully, by turns angry and defensive, domineering and frustrated at the loss of his powers. For all his character’s brusqueness, Wolpe is still able to mine those too-rare moments of connection.
Cerveris has a lot to do as John, narrator and central character, and — while his command of the lines flagged at a preview performance — he brings a likability to the role.
Larsen and Forman make each of their several characters memorable, from Larsen’s too-loud Home Depot cashier and Cosmo-toting Manhattanite to Forman’s contractor Lou and funny horticulturist.
Eric Southern’s set soars above the stage, two large platforms with a huge L-shaped frame of roof arching up and back as if a giant hand had pushed it there to reveal the contents of the house. A large tarp draped over it doubles as a screen onto which photos are projected to expand the play’s horizons.
But for all its strengths, “Renovations” could be stronger.
There are certainly verbal fireworks between father and son — and Gerle has a good ear for dialogue — but “Renovations” lacks a climactic confrontation, a tipping point. Without it, there’s little emotional payoff.
There are plenty of moments packed with potential, but Gerle lets them wither, unconnected.
The moments of heart come in flashbacks.
One of the most charming is John’s memory of his grandfather, Valentino.
Played by the chameleon-like Forman in one of his several roles, Valentino delivers, in broken English, a heartfelt soliloquy on the value of keys.
“Every key, she say ‘I’m allowed. I deserve. I have-a the power,” Valentino tells John as a toddler. “The most people, they cannot-a go through this door, they cannot open this box.’ But I can, I have-a the key. This key, she is for my house. My house. Who I own. Who is warm. Who has a Victrola and Caruso records I can play when I want. Caruso sing for me when I say, he sing what I tell him to sing. Eh? How about that?”
Valentino is a dreamer.
His son, Tully, is hardened by a life of monotonous toil. He doesn’t have time for dreams. There’s a job to do.
Tully derides John, biting off the words “you’re dreaming” and “dreamin’ doesn’t pay the bills.”
There’s a powder keg of potential in a tragic event that changed Tully’s life forever. But Gerle fails to light that fuse, choosing to have John report it to us and never letting us see its impact on Tully. It’s a moment squandered.
A much-lauded composer — he has won the Richard Rodgers Award four times and the Jonathan Larson award once — Gerle writes economically, to be sure.
But some of the weaknesses of “Renovations” may be structural and tied to that economy.
By choosing to make “Renovations” an intermissionless single act, Gerle puts himself on the clock and paints himself into a corner.
If he were to cut himself free from the source material and choose to use it as a springboard instead of a blueprint, “Renovations” could be something special, with the power to move audiences.
It just needs a little renovation.
“Renovations” Through April 3. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. White Plains Performing Arts Center, 11 City Place, White Plains. $39. 914-328-1600. Go to the White Plains Performing Arts Center website.