It’s hard to imagine anything more appropriate for a theater’s tentative emergence from the pandemic than Richard Greenberg’s new one-man play, “A Shot Rang Out,” which made its world premiere on Friday at South Coast Repertory with SCR artistic director David Ivers in the sole role. It’s the first indoor production at SCR since the pandemic began, and a fitting way to launch its abbreviated 2021-22 season.

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The New York playwright, whose association with the Costa Mesa theater company stretches back over three decades and 11 productions, has created an ideal vessel to explore the myriad fears, hopes and frustrations that we’ve all shared over the last 18 months. We relive those familiar feelings through John, an actor who has been struggling to find purpose and fend off mind-numbing boredom while his profession, and his life, are on hold. He presents himself to us on a stage that hints of both forced idleness and potential: a jumble of lights and other theatrical detritus. (Set designer Christopher Barreca created the seemingly random look.)  

As in most single-person plays, the fourth wall doesn’t exist. John talks directly to us about himself, and we listen whether we like it or not; he even makes jokes about annoying tyrannies imposed on theatergoers by the rules of live theater.

Since “A Shot Rang Out” is a Greenberg script, there’s much more to this story and the character who tells it than his meandering conversation initially suggests. In typically Greenbergian fashion, those complexities are unveiled carefully and cunningly, challenging us to re-evaluate our opinion of a man forced by aloneness to confront his personal demons and life choices. Anyone who’s seen a Greenberg play knows that John, like so many of the playwright’s characters, is a less-than-reliable narrator, and that he’s undoubtedly hiding a thing or two.

To say more than that about the plot of “A Shot Rang Out” would do a disservice to one of Greenberg’s greatest gifts: his ability to surprise us, even when we think we’ve figured things out. The play’s most rewarding moments are in its latter half, when John gradually reveals more of what underlies his constant agita. John’s final epiphany might seem a bit forced and overly theatrical but, well, he’s an actor, and we can understand his need to play up the moment.

John is a classic Greenberg character in other ways, too. He’s charming, wickedly funny, an expert storyteller, and self-absorbed — boy, does he love to talk about himself. Some one-person shows take you on a journey to many places through the wizardry of light cues, costume changes and other theatrical effects that widen the play’s narrative horizons. But John stays put in the here and now. He overwhelms us with the minutiae of his solitary pandemic existence.

John spends much of the play’s first half meticulously analyzing two less-than-perfect movies from decades ago, “Any Wednesday” (1966) and “The Seven Year Itch” (1955). Even as John dismisses them as lightweight entertainments not worthy of serious analysis, he dives into a passionate discourse that could be a graduate seminar: the wonders of sumptuous color in older movies, the twisted morality of each film’s story, the vastly underrated acting talents of Marilyn Monroe. (John tells us that legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg considered her one of the two greatest actors he ever worked with.) Monroe’s famously sexy subway-grate scene gets thoroughly analyzed.

Even during this relentless round of scholarly blather, though, you suspect something bigger is on John’s mind. Why such an obsession with movies about fidelity, morality and difficult choices? This is where Ivers’ performance shines. There’s pain beneath John’s mellifluous explanations, and a desire to win us over — qualities that become more understandable as the story unfolds. 

‘A Shot Rang Out’

When: Through Nov. 6

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Tickets: $26-$93

scr.org

Ivers captures John’s charms as well. Like so many actors, John has the ability to make even the mundane seem fascinating, and Ivers gifts him with a honeyed voice and easy affability. But skillful as he is, Ivers can’t conceal the occasional dead spots that burden the script in its middle third. Sometimes, John gets a little too deep into the weeds of self-examination, and the play’s energy flags.

Thankfully those moments are rare, and they don’t undermine the impressive achievement of Greenberg, Ivers and director Tony Taccone. John is a completely realized and convincing creation, clearly the result of close collaboration among the three men. Ivers inhabits the role effortlessly, making a herculean assignment look as comfortable as a second skin.

Greenberg performs his own sleights of hand. The words “COVID” or “pandemic” are never uttered for 90 minutes. They don’t have to be. John’s lonely existence is a different kind of quarantine — from pain and tragedy, from his own tortured feelings, from things that he’d rather not face. Sometimes the deepest realms of isolation aren’t physical, but in our own heads.  

Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.

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