Adam Chanler-Berat in a scene from the Playwrights Horizons production of "Fly By Night."
The great Northeast blackout of 1965 is the backdrop for “Fly By Night,” an often magical, occasionally meandering “rock fable” kept aloft by a winning group of stage vets. The dark musical, composed by a trio of multi-tasking Yale grads, is having its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons.
Youthful pros Adam Chanler-Berat, Patti Murin and Allison Case form the charming love triangle at the center of “Fly By Night,” which at heart is a tale about the deeply personal ways we all power through life’s darkness. Chanler-Berat is Harold, a frustrated sandwich maker whose mother has just died. Murin and Case are Daphne and Miriam, sisters from South Dakota, who venture to New York so extrovert Daphne can pursue an acting career.
Other players include Harold’s dad, Mr. McClam (Peter Friedman); Crabble (Michael McCormick, hysterical), the aptly-named owner of the sandwich shop where Harold robotically assembles lunch for the masses; and a narrator (Obie honoree Henry Stram), who here serves a purpose much like that of the narrator of “The Fantasticks,” a musical “Fly By Night” frequently calls to mind.
“Fly By Night” eschews a linear structure, and that’s one of its major strengths. Though set over the course of a year, it jumps around in time, revisiting the same moments, but with new context. An early scene has Harold awkwardly playing guitar at a local watering hole’s amateur’s night, singing about sea turtles. It’s not until later we learn why he’s there and what his song is truly about.
A sadness pervades “Fly By Night,” though it doesn’t overwhelm until the second act. For the first part of the story, we seem to be watching a relatable, albeit assembled-from-archetypes, piece about chance meetings and the decisions we make, and the ways both accidents and choices—even as small as picking up your mother’s old guitar—ripple out over the years.
Matters take a painful, and to my taste jarring, turn in the second act, which drives home a message about stopping to smell the roses … or in this case, stare at the constellations. The twists at the end don’t feel as if they’re in keeping with the first two hours. That’s the musical’s major weakness, though the scenic design and lighting (by David Korins and Jeff Croiter) gorgeously transform the Mainstage into a powerless Gotham.
As a nebbishy heartthrob, Chanler-Berat, a gifted comic soul, evokes past performances in “Next to Normal” and “Peter and the Starcatcher” (he’s literally, again, dealing here with “star stuff”). A crackler of a song, “Eternity,” has the young man and his beaten-down boss expressing their frustration at having to spend their days methodically slathering bread with mayonnaise.
Ever since The Public’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” I’ve been tuned into Murin (above left, with Case), who enlivened all her proceedings with spot-on comic timing, hopefulness and a delightful sprinkling of actress-like narcissism. That applies here, as well.
Case (“Hands on a Hardbody”), meanwhile, is just swell as Miriam, whose outlook on life is so sunny that she eagerly picks up a graveyard shift at a greasy spoon on her arrival from the sticks, but asks her boss: “Um, can we call it the Twilight Shift?” A solo, “Stars, I trust,” lingers in the mind after you’ve left the theater.
Friedman’s turn as a spouse clinging to the memory of a night once shared with his beloved was one of the most piercing and truthful things about “Fly By Night.”
At two-and-a-half hours, “Fly By Night” could use some judicious trimming. A subplot involving a neurotic playwright (Bryce Ryness, of “Hair”) enchanted with Daphne may be necessary for certain parallels to work, but it bogs things down.
One-time classmates Michael Mitnick, Kim Rosenstock and Will Connolly share credit for the music and story, which has been percolating in various incarnations since 2009. Rosenstock is a staff writer for the sitcom “New Girl.” Connolly is a singer-songwriter who has performed in Broadway’s “Once,” while Mitnick contributed lyrics to the “King Kong” musical that opened last year in Australia.
The final scenes of “Fly By Night” had me reliving our own blackout of 11 years ago, though I couldn’t help wondering whether a play that purports to hinge on such an event shouldn’t introduce it more robustly earlier in the proceedings. Still, the take-away fits in rather perfectly with the setting. To paraphrase Stram’s narrator: You can’t have the lights without sometimes having a blackout.
“Fly By Night,” through June 29 at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. Tickets: Starting at $75. Call 212-279-4200.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn