Wednesday, November 24, 2010

THEATER: The Science of Guilt

It's ironic that Fixitsolife's mission statement is to create "simple, pure theater" with "no tricks or turns," considering that their inaugural production, Jason Odell Williams's The Science of Guilt, is a twisty, unrealistic bit of flimflam. It's a lot like Paul Grellong's Manuscript, which played the DR2 Theater five years ago, save that the writing isn't as sharp and speedy, nor is the cast as talented. The basic premise is good: two estranged brothers discover a pharmacological cure for "guilt," which is just the thing they need, since they're about to screw each other over in order to win the girl they both love, Marcy (Sarah Kate Jackson). Dramatically, it's not as effective: Kevin (Vincent Piazza) who is called a "crackpot half-a-PhD addict" never comes across as anything more than an confidence-lacking con man, and John (Anatol Yusef) is reduced to being the stereotypical "vicious businessman" (is there any other kind?), and that's before he takes a pill that makes him guilt-impaired.

What's left, really, is the script, which is a forcefully convoluted affair -- a story stretched for the sake of surprise, one that leads characters to act even more unnaturally. Then again, we're never really given the opportunity to see anyone acting "naturally"; we're simply told that Kevin left Marcy at the altar eight years ago, informed that John has married her, and never given the slightest indication that any of them actually care for each other. (So far as Jackson's portrayal of Marcy goes, it's impossible to believe that anyone would want her: she's a screechy bitch, a clumsy seductress, and -- by the end -- on the verge of being a sociopath.) This leads to a lack of consistency and a lack of plausibility, the sort of hackneyed writing in which anything can happen. For instance, when John implies that Marcy wants him to "take care of" Kevin, Kevin assumes -- as does the audience--that he's using a euphemism for "kill," which is really just as believable as anything else. There's some mild entertainment in watching the reversals, but there's no faith that makes us actually care. (The actors certainly don't seem to, but then again, it's hard to tell: their characters constantly give up and walk away; so much for drama.)

Given how much the script squanders its own rare moments of insight (the placebo effect, Marcy's version of "guilt"), refusing to connect them in any deeper way to the play itself, it's perhaps unfair to kill the messenger (director Francesco Campari) for all the unnatural rhythms and dead space that's wound up on stage. Arguments, already lowered to tedium by their schoolyard-level wit, often lose momentum mid-sentence as Yusef and Piazza wait to be cut off, or grasp for a sense of purpose. The most egregious bit of direction is the play's opening: thirty seconds of silent, unnatural staring -- enough to make everyone in the theater feel uncomfortable. Real conversations don't often have those sorts of gaps; theatrical silences must either be pregnant (ala Pinter) or aborted, like much of this stunted play. To be insensitive with my metaphors: Williams, please salvage the stem cells of your script and begin anew.

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