Lally Katz has a strong line in mixing personal stories with magic realism and making something sweet and heartfelt and entertaining out of it. "Back at the Dojo" takes the stories of her father and his drifting into and out of a drug addiction and into a relationship with the woman who became her mother, and combines it with a somewhat invented wraparound with an older father waiting at his wife's hospital bed and being visited by their transgender grandchild.
The strengths of this show largely lie in the father's story - while this is in many ways a young man's coming of age and finding love story, and as such is fairly familiar territory, it's played with heart and truth and few histrionics. The wraparound is a bit more problematic. It's partially that, with the best will in the world, Brian Lipson's New Jersey accent does not convince, and it creates an unavoidable drag in his performance that never really lands. It's also partially that, while Luke Mullins gives the role of Patti his all, Patti tends to come across as a self-obsessed whiner who manages to make her grandmother's deathbed All About Her.
But this script could ask for no better production than Chris Kohn's. Using the background of a realistic facsimile of a hospital room (down to the mass-produced plastic chairs) it flits across time and space in an instant, with a talented ensemble playing multiple role. Harry Greenwood as the drifting young Danny is a sweetly befuddled kid slowly finding his way into adult responsibilities and encountering love and loss as his journeys lead him towards maturity. The karate dojo at the centre of much of the second act lends a distinctive controlled physical energy to the play, and that's led by Natsuko Mineghishi, who embodies control and compassion in roughly equal amounts. The remaining cast cover multiple roles exceedingly well - Fayssal Bazzi, who stole scenes wholesale in last year's "Ivanov", now is heartbreaking as the emotionally damaged Jerry, Catherine Davies is immediately endearing and adorable as the young Lois, Shari Sebbens has a range of sympathetic roles while Dara Clear has an equally wide range of largely unsympathetic ones.
The contribution of Jethro Woodward's sound design (a rich mix of compelling dramatic music) and Richard Vabre's lighting design (switching moods from institutionally cold to cosily warm and back again in an instant) cannot be underestimated in making this a compellingly intriguing production.
I don't think this is as strong a script as Katz's previous hit with Belvoir, "Neighborhood Watch", but Kohn's staging makes it an intriguing journey none-the-less, well worth the taking.