Playwright Jordan Harrison likes a high concept – in his widely-favored 2011 Humana Festival entry “Maple and Vine,” which went on to high-profile productions at Playwrights Horizons and American Conservatory Theatre, urban achievers leave the contemporary über-connected rat race to live in a planned community of 1950s re-enactors, with all of the racial, gender, and sexual anachronisms that implies; in his sci-fi dystopian “Futura” (produced in Louisville by Theatre  in 2012), books and paper are outlawed in favor of the computing cloud.
But Harrison carefully tends his characters’ emotional lives, too. The concepts exist to tell high-stakes, human stories – not the other way around. Such a story is the charming and painfully universal “The Grown-Up,” Harrison’s fifth play to make its world premiere in the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, “The Grown-Up” opened last night and runs through April 6 in the Bingham Theatre.
Compared to “Maple and Vine” and “Futura,” which exist in distinct worlds with their own grim rules but function more or less according to the laws of Earth-bound science, “The Grown-Up” is a magical ride through time and space that serves as a stealthy extended metaphor for the power of imagination and storytelling. The play asks the fundamental questions of adulthood: is it possible to balance our earlier innocence with earned experience? Can we ever find the way back to the children we once were?
The child is Kai (the versatile-yet-steady Matthew Stadelman), a dreamy ten-year-old boy charmed by a crystal doornob his grandfather (Paul Niebanck) has fashioned into a magic talisman recovered from a pirate ship by a long-gone sailor (David Ryan Smith). When Kai abandons his sister Annabelle (Brooke Bloom) during a game of hide-and-seek to try his hand at the magic doorknob instead, he finds himself transported into an older version of himself in a television pitch meeting in Los Angeles with a slightly sinister executive (Chris Murray) and his Adderall-amped assistant Rosie (the excellent Tiffany Villarin). (Niebanck, Smith, Murray and Villarin all play other characters as well.)
We follow Kai as he jumps further into his life, but we learn this is more than a straightforward re-cap when Annabelle re-appears later in hot pursuit.
It’s a fast-paced yarn executed flawlessly, and so while the story is neither linear nor what you might call easy, it’s also not difficult to follow. Harrison laces his scenes with narration delivered by the company, all of whom are on stage for the duration of the show (about 80 minutes, no intermission). These narrative asides, which function in the scene but also apart from it, could spiral manically out of control or slow a scene to a clumsy slog, but Schmoll deftly controls the rhythm of the play to make it feel at once natural and delightfully, carefully constructed.
Stand-out moments include Villarin’s monologues as the assistant whose job, we learn, is to “maintain whatever reality is called for on any given day,” after she is relieved of her duties, when she is free to revel in her ambitions and introduce a central metaphor for the meta-story that unfolds in the end of the play, and a wedding scene, when we see the apex of Kai’s adult happiness.
Daniel Zimmerman’s set design has just the right number of moving parts, with an old-fashioned streetlamp the largest and perhaps the least-negotiable piece. Paul Toben’s lighting design isn’t flashy, but it is indispensable to keeping the story straight on the Bingham’s round stage. Sound designer Lindsay Jones adds original music from a lonesome radio that adds an otherworldly atmosphere around a character whose role remains slightly mysterious through the end.
For such a magical story, though, there really aren’t any hardcore technical or set requirements that would constrain future productions – the strangeness resides in the text and in the company’s excellent performances, not in special effects. The moving finale does offer one small magical moment that resonates far beyond its technical demands, though, a fitting theatrical manifestation of the play’s beating heart.