The challenges of parenthood can be many. But hearing someone recount at length their own experiences as a parent can produce the urge to quickly exit the conversation. This is not the case with a highly engaging one-man show currently underway at Portland Stage.

“Searching for Mr. Moon,” a new play co-authored by Richard Topol and Willy Holtzman and performed by Topol, is a creatively drawn autobiographical sketch of the Broadway actor as he struggles with questions about parenthood from both ends of the equation – as a son and as a father – as well as about his overall place in the world.

The imaginative visual design elements employed in this Julia Gibson-directed world premiere production add a touch of dazzle. But the real substance of the play comes across as something you might hear when a very interesting dinner guest takes over the table to tell an engrossing story or two or three … or more.

Topol’s experiences as part of the New York theater scene provide plenty of behind-the-scenes show-biz anecdotes. Al Pacino and others show up in the narrative. And the fact that his wife is the daughter of the famous composer/conductor Lukas Foss (1922-2009) is another source of memories and metaphors for the play as the actor, who lost his own father early in life, constantly weighs potential paternal stand-ins.

The polystylistic approach of Foss (a compelling soundtrack of his work is a highlight) is echoed in the chance or choice dichotomy of effective parenthood as Topol sees it. Do you just let it happen or do you need to make detailed plans and preparations?

He’s conflicted as he searches for the right combination of doing fatherly things and being a real father to his new young daughter. And what can all this mean when he’s often tied up in his brink-of-stardom acting career as well as suffering personal health scares?

Apart from all the salient issues raised and fun peeks into the higher reaches of the American theater and music scene of the last few decades, the real payoff of “Searching for Mr. Moon” comes in seeing a very good and highly likeable professional actor take over a Portland stage and hold it in this 90-minutes production, with no intermission.

Though a few home movies do add a personal touch, the colorful Kandinsky-inspired visual projections by Michael Commendatore and geometric design elements by Anita Stewart form little more than a diverting flourish. As reviewed on opening night, it is the inspired work of Topol, telling his own story (with help from the acclaimed playwright Holtzman, of course) that makes this show a standout of the fall theater season.

Whether parenthood will be, never was or is no longer an upfront issue for audience members, they are likely to find this new play a highly entertaining visit with an actor who knows what he is doing, even as he worries aloud that he doesn’t.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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