On its surface, "Doris to Darlene" inhabits a Barbie fantasy world, saturated with pink and pulsing with girl-group shoopshoops. Yet a pained and valiant heart beats beneath the candy-colored veneer of Jordan Harrison's marvelously inventive new play, which opened last night at Playwrights Horizons in a perfectly calibrated production by Les Waters.
Though its step is sprightly, the true concern of "Doris to Darlene" is the struggle faced by those of romantic temperament — to hold on to threatened innocence, to risk vulnerability. And over the course of his deftly plotted journey, Mr. Harrison steadily grows his theme from a breezy doo-wop melody to a full-bodied Wagnerian aria.
On a mod gray set limned with pink, three tormented couples from three centuries come and go, their stories interrupting and overlapping. We begin in the 1960s with Darlene, real name Doris (de'Adre Aziza), a former schoolgirl plucked from a talent contest by record producer Vic Watts. As brilliantly embodied by Michael Crane, Vic Watts is a skinny guy with a skinny tie, a loose-limbed creature with a floppy mop of hair who wears sunglasses indoors. Vic looks like a young Bob Dylan but thinks and acts like a jaded middle-aged sellout; he makes Darlene a girl-group star, marries her while she's making hit records, then moves on.
Meanwhile, somewhere in 1860s Bavaria, Richard Wagner (David Chandler) is writing tempestuous music for his adoring 18-year-old patron, King Ludwig II. Wild-haired Wagner and pale Ludwig are styled like characters in a Tim Burton film — the frizzy locks, the vest with cravat. Even more arresting is the fact that Ludwig is obviously played by a woman in drag (Laura Heisler), whose femininity palpably underscores Ludwig's forbidden crush on his idol. Finally, there is a 21st-century pair. The Young Man (Tobias Segal) listens to Darlene's songs on his iPod, and yearns to prove his mettle to his music appreciation teacher, Mr. Campani (a quietly magnificent Tom Nelis). Mr. Campani, who left his singing career prematurely, now comes alive only when he talks about opera, but these rare outbursts are enough to stir unrequited longings in his gay suburban pupil.
For nearly all the characters, an intensely private experience with music seems to lock them in isolated cells. They recognize their fellow travelers in this lonely passion, but somehow, they're unable or unwilling to participate in the messiness of real life. As recompense for life, they have music, which is not really enough.
Mr. Waters (late of "Eurydice") proves a felicitous choice of director for Mr. Harrison's New York debut. Mr. Waters's masterful direction tells in every aspect of this resplendent production, from the spot-on casting to the sleek staging to the expert use of sound. In his capable hands, "Doris to Darlene" feels wonderfully full-bodied, a charmed marriage of aesthetic, theme, and tone.
The set, by Takeshi Kata, is a minimalist marvel of walls, desks, and revolving platforms, given rapid shifts of mood and emphasis by lighting designer Jane Cox. Other pitch-perfect work comes from the impeccable cast, who deliver marvelous supporting work in their doubled and tripled roles, becoming radically different characters with little cosmetic aid other than perhaps a single item of clothing.
An ode to the romantic temperament may seem precious to some. Yet Mr. Harrison's central problem in "Doris to Darlene" — how to stave off the encroachment of cynicism, preserving a piece of our innocence to build with — is a potent one. In the play's final moments, Wagner swells to fill the theater, and Mr. Harrison finds salvation for his characters through an act of pure imagination. Here, at least, is one place where the romantic's power is undeniable.
Until December 23 (416 W. 42nd St., between Ninth and Tenth avenues, 212-279-4200).