On Sundays, Gothamist runs opinion pieces on issues relevant to life in New York. The views expressed below belong entirely to the author.

2005_12_arts_coronado.JPG Tim Robbins and Sean Penn won Academy Awards for the intensity they put into their acting in Mystic River, and they were great, for sure – but they were acting in a movie with a plot that doesn’t exactly skimp on tense moments. Now imagine the same sort of slowly uncoiled, suspenseful storyline, played out in front of you in a teeny-tiny theater space where you’re about five feet from the action. Seeing Coronado, the first play by Dennis Lehane (author of the novel Mystic River was based on), is something like that. It began life as an award-winning short story and now, produced by the Invisible City Theatre Company, is in thoroughly absorbing live action. It’s a little too much at times – tipping occasionally into melodrama that’s kind of exhausting – but for the most part the story is so skillfully revealed, both in the writing and in the actors’ interpretations, that it’s hard to complain.

The first act takes place entirely in a bar where three pairs sit at three tables: Gina and Will (Rebecca Miller and Lance Rubin) are young lovers who can’t get enough of each other, Bobby and his father (Avery Clark and Gerry Lehane) are rough-housing in a manner that seems playful at first but quickly becomes hostile, and a woman and her psychiatrist (Kathleen Wallace and Jason Macdonald) are talking over drinks. With this sort of play it’s hard to go into much more detail, because knowing things in advance takes away the whole point of it. Unfortunately, the bare-bones production under David Epstein’s direction makes things in this first part somewhat more confusing than they ought to be; it could have benefited from at least the kind of emphatic lighting that shows up in the second act. Anyway, to flesh this out a little more, Gina is married to Will’s boss, and Will is ready to do whatever is necessary to make her his; Bobby and his father, we learn, are seeking a large diamond that Bobby had but cannot now recall what he did with it; and the woman has had sex with the psychiatrist (who’s married, sort of) and is now confessing her sordid life story to him. Again, it’s hard to be really specific without giving plot twists away, but that intricate plot calls for a slightly larger-scale production (or, though I hate to say it, film) – this staging, at least in the first act, is just too cramped.

2005_12_arts_bobbygwen.JPG In the role of Bobby, whose character is the nexus around which all the intertwining stories convene, Avery Clark turns in a particularly powerful, articulate performance, resisting the melodrama that is never far from the story. The whole cast is good, really, but Lehane has written in more than a few unnatural-sounding monologues and conversational exchanges; it’s nothing more than the kind of improbably intelligent dialogue you hear in movies or on TV dramas, really (great metaphors for love, astoundingly well-worded verbal challenges, etc.) but it strikes me as false in any media and the other actors don’t always manage to mitigate this effect with a subtle, grounded interpretation. On the other hand, they all make the characters’ twangy Southern accents and stereotypical diction sound natural where it could easily have seemed a joke, and anyway they’re far from chewing the scenery (not that there is any) and by the play’s end they’ve certainly gotten you to believe in them and their predicaments. You go from moment to moment piecing things together as they do, and you easily share the fear and pain and sadness that well up in them along the way.

The second half of Coronado – which brings out yet another plot strand that was only mentioned before, with Bobby and his girlfriend Gwen (Maggie Bell) – takes place in more varied locations but is nonetheless more seamlessly presented, which is good for the build-up to the conclusion. In connecting the strands of the plot, Lehane uses not only actual elements of the story and the characters’ history, he also has written in both physical and rhetorical flags that make you start to understand what’s going on before you even consciously know you do and allowing the neatness of the bow-tying in the last scene seem fair and real. Lehane has written seven novels, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see several more on screen fairly soon, but I also hope he will adapt more of his writing for theatre – or, perhaps better, write directly for the stage. When it comes to good old traditional storytelling, playwriting can certainly always use someone with his talent for putting together a compelling, elegantly constructed tale. Go see Coronado and, in spite of the few weaknesses I’ve mentioned, you’ll see what I mean.

Details: Coronado runs through Dec. 17 at Manhattan Theatre Source, 177 MacDougal. Performances are Tues.-Sat. 8pm. Call 212-981-8240 to reserve tickets.