Somehow you don't expect much from a play with pizza in the title. The word itself is so redolent of soggy cardboard, third-rate ingredients, and stale pop culture. And while it's true that large slices of the second act of The Poetry of Pizza (a world premiere at the Purple Rose, by playwright Deborah Brevoort) are a five-buck Little Caesars carried along by the momentum of the first act plus hilarious bits of good character acting, the first act is stunningly, achingly perfect.

The year is 1998. The place is Copenhagen. The cultural milieu is postmodern and pre-9/11. American academic poetry theorist Sarah Middleton (Michelle Mountain), in Denmark on something like a Fulbright, falls in love with Kurdish refugee Soran Saleen (Qarie Marshall) who works at the neighborhood pizzeria. Sarah and her postmodern poetics are poleaxed by Soren's simple narrative of a hard life in which each event has meaning and value — something outside her clever, analytical experience.

Or is it just lust? And if it is, what is the value of simply being moved off your axis? The chemistry between these two lights up the stage (which, it should be said, lights itself up quite nicely without them — the backdrop, a hard rocky coast of Denmark, shifts gorgeously from hard pinky purples to soft turquoise: lighting design by Dana White, set by Bartley H. Bauer).

Love for a postmodernist is harder than it is for normal people because it means relinquishing your deepest principle: that life has no meaning. For Sarah, even "meaning" has no meaning, and she finds herself having to rethink and defend an entirely different theory of poetics. As an academic debate, the postmodern question may have worn itself out a while ago (circa 1998, perhaps), but on stage, with these two actors, the question comes alive, giving the evening an odd arc. The first act ends in a (nonexplicit) erotic scene that turns the audience out into the lobby delirious with expectation. But, well, as they say, it's a tough act to follow.

The play's academic discourse is unexpectedly credible, and Sarah is appealing both before and after her awakening by Soran. I have nothing rational to say about Soran — I just want to go live in his universe for a while. The cast is rounded out by a motley collection of charming eccentrics, who all, amazingly, pair up in a thoroughly unlikely ending.

Pizza runs through Saturday, December 22. It's one of the freshest, wittiest things the Purple Rose has done in a long time.

[Review published November 2007]