When the lights come up on First Folio Theatre’s staging of Joseph Zettelmaier’s “Salvage,” the audience is immersed in the terrifically detailed retro-world of a Detroit collectibles store. The place is packed with the kind of curios that make Comic Con attendees salivate: Banana Splits lunch boxes from the 1960s, 1950s monster movie posters, “Star Wars” action figures, sports jerseys and stacks of old comic books. Set designer Angela Weber Miller has outdone herself with this production, creating an intriguing, evocative environment that draws the audience deep into the play before the first line of dialogue is uttered.
Once the dialogue starts in Zettelmaier’s intriguing hybrid rom-com/mystery/noir, “Salvage” unspools a story as tantalizing as that intricate set. Directed by Alison C. Vesely, the two-person drama is a twisting web of love, loot, and larceny. Throughout, Zettelmaier ably captures both the tension-infused spirit of urban crime capers and the light-hearted romance of blushing first love.
In the sometimes meandering first act (“Salvage” could be a tad shorter), we learn that Joseph Byrne (Tyler Rich) is on the brink of financial meltdown, deeply in debt and a whisker away from shuttering Hidden Treasures, the beloved shop that he opened with the proceeds from an insurance payout. But Joseph’s troubles appear to be over after a visit from Sarah Smith (Melanie Keller), a gorgeous redhead who wanders in hoping to get an appraisal for an old baseball card, a piece of ephemera she says she found in her late father’s belongings. And wouldn’t you just know it — that collection also includes some wildly valuable rarities, items that could lift Joseph out of his overwhelmingly awful financial state.
For Jason, Sarah’s perfectly-timed arrival seems like the solution to all of his problems. The cash-strapped, pasty-white geek is suddenly having lots of wild sex and in possession of the Holy Grail of baseball cards. But what seems too good to be true is, in fact, just that. Salvation from Sarah comes with a steep price tag. To reveal anything further would result in unforgiveable spoilers — suffice to say that Sarah is not what she seems and Joseph is soon forced to decide precisely how much he’s willing to pay for this unexpected windfall of love and money.
Vesely draws wonderful performances from her small cast, and the chemistry between Rich and Keller sparks from their initial encounter. Rich is wonderfully empathetic, nailing the nerdish enthusiasm of a true pop culture nut. Rattling off stats and trivia about old movies, TV shows and sports figures, he captures the nearly obsessive/compulsive delight of a true fanboy and the wry, often sardonic sense of fatalism that comes with being a small business owner in Detroit in the midst of a recession. It’s the sort of performance that sends you riffling through the program in order to find out just who this guy is and where he’s been until now.
Keller is equally impressive, giving Sarah the clipped tones and opaque countenance of a classic femme fatale. She’s all understated attire and conservative demeanor on the outside, roiling with hidden agendas on the inside. Together, Keller and Rich make a compelling duo, his bantering chatter contrasting wonderfully with her taciturn, poker-faced reserve. Both bring a spontaneity to the stage that makes each moment feel unexpected and amps up the tension to a tantalizing degree.
In the final seconds of “Salvage,” Zettelmaier adds one last hairpin pivot to the plot, a didn’t-see-that-coming exclamation point that’s terrifically satisfying. For fans of mystery stories and anybody intrigued by the mysteries embedded within romantic relationships, “Salvage” is essential viewing.