Rob Zellers' new play at Pittsburgh Public Theatre reminded me of an interview I did with sage local filmmaker Tony Buba some years back. Buba is famed for short films documenting his hard-times hometown of Braddock, Pa., often highlighting postindustrial urban eccentrics: a motor-mouthed ne'er-do-well, a zealously overoptimistic used-furniture salesman. Interviewed a couple decades after completing the films that first made his name, Buba said that sort of person doesn't exist any more; our world just doesn't seem to have room for them.
Zellers' play, though, is set in just that world -- though in the version Zellers grew up with, in Youngstown, Ohio's. Perhaps it's not entirely coincidental that the year is 1977, around the time Buba was most assiduously documenting Braddock's characters.
Zellers' Harry owns a service station only nominally; he's really a bookie, and as the play open he's in a fresh $9,000 hole. Most of the story revolves around his relationship with his daughter, a young woman who turns up unannounced 12 years after he put her in an orphanage following the death of her mother. There's also the matter of his relationship with the local mob, and it's all against the backdrop of the collapse of the steel industry. (Again, shades of Braddock.)
And yes, crusty, angry old Harry (played by Edward James Hyland) is an eccentric: He keeps a beartrap in his office, and as a story one character tells makes clear, he's pretty good at scaring hippy college kids.
What struck me most about this entertaining and heartfelt play was the sense of community that made the story possible. Even its criminal aspects have roots: Harry's relationship to mob boss Carmine is definied less by their growing up together than by the generosity of Harry's mother that kept Carmine's impoverished family from starving during the Great Depression.
Meanwhile, the only constant in Harry's social circle is a pinochle game whose participants include Tina, the flame-haired proprietress of the local strip joint, and John, the struggling young lawyer whom Harry has allowed to set up an office in a corner of his gas station -- and who falls for Harry's daughter, Emily.
One scene depicts the aftermath of a boys' night at the club, played out before the eyes of innocent, earnest Emily. Yet when Harry reminds the calamitously hungover John "You told Heidi you'd call her this weekend," there's a double layer of meaning: The old man's not just nastily taking the young buck down a peg in the eyes of his daughter. After all, he knows the stripper Heidi, too -- and not calling her, you sense, would violate community protocol.
The characters in Harry's Friendly Service fight a lot, but they always fight like family, with a deep attachment to a place and a set of people, some chosen, some not. Never mind about eccentrics. These days, it's harder and harder to find people with that much sense of home.
(Harry's Friendly Service runs through Sun., June 28.)