Comic Duet: Theatre Nova's "Fortune" is a rom-com with expert timing


Russ Schwartz and Josie Eli Herman star in Theatre Nova's Fortune. Photo by Sean Carter Photography.

Russ Schwartz and Josie Eli Herman star in Theatre Nova's Fortune. Photo by Sean Carter Photography.

This has been a chilly, wet, slippery, snowy winter, so it’s a perfect time to warm up with a rom-com—especially with Valentine's Day around the corner.

For Theatre Nova's production of Deborah Zoe Laufer’s Fortune, director Carla Milarch brings two talented actors together in a comical duet. It’s a good choice for Nova's tiny, sometimes cramped space. There are some lighting special effects, but most of the fireworks come from the actors who play two lonely people looking for love.

Madame Rosa is a fortune teller, like her mother. It’s a family business and a curse. Unlike other “fortune tellers,” Madame Rosa actually can look into the past and predict the future, but she'd rather be a secretary. 

When not being Madame Rosa, she’s a lonely young woman named Maude who is afraid of what she can do and afraid to give up the business and do something about her life.

One day, a desperate young man demands that Madame Rosa read his fortune. He’s an awkward young accountant who has been regularly striking out in his attempts to find love. He wants to know what his future holds and doesn’t want it sugar-coated. 

Josie Eli Herman plays Maude. Herman uses an Eastern European accent for Madame Rosa and a tough city voice for Maude. We hear the advice Maude gives over the phone: snarky, dismissive, and tinged with regrets that she tries to soft pedal for those whose futures do not look good. Herman does a good job showing how heavy Maude’s burden becomes until love finds her.

Russ Schwartz plays Jeremy, a nice guy, a nebbish, a failure in the game of love. Schwartz is good at presenting Jeremy’s two sides. On the one hand, he’s a likable young man who should be able to resolve his problems with the opposite sex without a fortune teller. But when he gets desperate, he goes bonkers or acts out roles that he thinks will attract women but don’t and spoil his chances.

Laufer’s play is funny, nicely contrasting the two characters, who for all of their differences have a common need for love. As with many comedies, not every joke or routine works. The one-act play runs a bit too long. Still, this seems to be the right play, in the right month. 

The story is primarily set in Madame Rosa’s psychic parlor. It’s a run-down hole in the wall where Maude sleeps on the floor awaiting the next phone call or visitor. 

There is another setting, a city promenade. Maude sees bad things for Jeremy and encourages him with what she imagines is a false hope. She tells him he will meet his match, a beautiful, red-headed woman on the promenade. Maude, of course, plays the ravishing redhead. This is the setup for several disastrous attempts at seduction with several red-heads (all Maude) that give Herman and Schwartz room to play off their characters and act out different scenarios. Herman’s different costumes and her flaming hair, from costume director Genevieve Compton, are other sources of good humor.

Milarch, a veteran director and a playwright, works with two actors who are in step with each other and understand how to play off each other’s opposite personalities. 

The other presence is dynamic flashing lights when Madame Rosa has a vision and a super energetic rain storm. Lighting designer Jeff Alder adds an extra element that probably works a little better in such a tight space.

We know how the story ends—it’s a rom-com. But in winter, a rom-com seems to be what romantics need.

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently the managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

Theatre Nova presents Deborah Zoe Laufer’s “Fortune” at 8 pm on Thursdays-Saturdays and at 2 pm on Sundays through February 25 at 410 West Huron Street, Ann Arbor. Masks will be required for Thursday performances. For tickets and more information, visit Tickets may also be purchased one hour before each performance.