Actors Brian Pater and Annie Trevisan Astound in 21Ten Theatre’s “52 Pick-Up”

The chronologically scrambled romance recalls “(500) Days of Summer,” but with greater depth and sharper wit.

52 Pick-Up (Courtesy of 21ten Theatre)

Midway through 21Ten Theatre’s production of TJ Dawe and Rita Bozi’s comedy 52 Pick-Up, a character known simply as “the woman” (Annie Trevisan) announces her big dream: to teach English in Thailand…and have her boyfriend, “the man” (Brian Pater), come with her.

Does the man want to? Who cares! Trevisan, smiling gleefully and spreading their arms wide, sells the idea that the couple’s future is in Thailand as if it could be the most magical event in human history since Neil Armstrong’s boots kicked up clouds of lunar dust.

Therein lies the thrill of 52 Pick-Up: It compels you to care about the couple’s lives as much as they care about themselves. With its jumbled chronology and rueful finish, the play echoes (500) Days of Summer, but avoids that film’s smug regard for its own cleverness. Without the crutch of irony or apology, Dawe and Bozi have written a resplendent romance that Pater, Trevisan and director Gavin Hoffman have brought to smoldering, soulful life.

52 Pick-Up begins with the man and the woman announcing their intention to tell a partly real, partly imagined story together. With gusto, they toss a stack of playing cards in the air, each bearing a different scene title (including “First Time,” “Second Meeting” and, my personal favorite, “The Ideals”).

Throughout the play, the actors take turns randomly picking up cards off the floor, playing out whichever scene they grab. The dialogue may be preordained, but the order of scenes changes at each performance, leading to often painful juxtapositions (at the show I attended, two brilliantly cringe-y post-breakup scenes occurred in the middle instead of at the end).

From the start, the man and the woman’s courtship is comically doomed. He wants a blond girlfriend who wears dresses; she’s a brunette in cargo pants. She wants a well-traveled, trilingual beau; he can barely count to 10 in German (it’s not that hard, dude—eins, zwei, drei!).

52 Pick-Up demands actors with enough chemistry that we buy them as a couple and enough friction to convince us their characters won’t make it to the altar. To that end, Pater and Trevisan settle into a nuanced groove, embracing moments of physical intimacy (like when Trevisan playfully scratches Pater’s chin) while leaning into the bitterness behind seemingly diplomatic arguments about everything from toxic masculinity to astrology.

Trevisan, in particular, has mastered the art of off-the-cuff humanity. When they smack their leg with a book to emphasize a point, it doesn’t feel like an actor’s choice; it feels as if the character has possessed them. It’s Trevisan’s supreme comfort with the material that makes the play less a construction than a creation.

Both Pater and Trevisan are well served by the space. 52 Pick-Up is playing in 21Ten’s “bare bones” theater, in which you sit just feet away from the actors, able to catch the subtlest gestures and facial expressions. It’s an arena that demands something akin to film acting; actorly flourishes that go unnoticed at a cavernous venue like Portland Center Stage can be jarring in an unforgivingly compact setting.

Luckily for 21Ten, the actors have the authority and humanity of seasoned movie stars. The cards may set the story’s course, but you never doubt that Pater and Trevisan are in control.

SEE IT: 52 Pick-Up plays at 21Ten Theatre, 2110 SE 10th Ave., 503-208-5143, 7:30 pm Friday-Saturday and 2 pm Sunday, through Sept. 17. $15-$20.

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