Wednesday, April 20, 2011


The play's called High because it follows the attempts of a street-smart, plainclothes nun named Sister Jamison Connelly (Kathleen Turner) to reform a serious drug user, Cody Randall (Evan Jonigkeit), at the behest of her boss, Father Michael Delpapp (Stephen Kunken). The subject matter, however, is dead-on-arrival sober, which you'd expect from a playwright (Matthew Lombardo) who alludes to some expertise with addiction in his bio. It is also, unfortunately, slight, trite, empty, vacuous, boring, obvious, heavy-handed, lethargic, drowsy, and -- in case you aren't getting the picture -- repetitive. It is a show with precisely one idea, and perhaps one surprise, that nonetheless earnestly and awfully stretches itself to fill two acts, mainly by telegraphing what's going to happen ("Who knows," says Father Michael to Sister Jamison, "you might even learn something from this one") and summarizing what's just happened.

One expects better of Ms. Turner, but once you get over the shock of hearing her plangent voice wasted on such awful lines, there's a certain campy pleasure that stems from watching as she proudly holds her head high and, with a straight-face, speaks out: "Temptation. Whenever you give into it, it never ends well." At one point, Lombardo shamelessly retells that old self-destructive anecdote about the scorpion and the frog, and while it doesn't do much for the play, the sight of Ms. Turner serenely enunciating the punchline ("Glug. Glug. Glug.") nearly makes the whole thing worthwhile. Still, despite the unfunny jokes ("Why do you play the guilt card?" "I'm a Catholic priest!"), it's important to remember that High isn't a comedy; you'll especially want to keep this in mind while watching Jonigkeit's portrayal of being "high," particularly in his climactic Act I relapse, in which he spasms and howls and wobbles and leers and attempts to molest Sister Jamison, stark naked the whole time, mind you. This isn't to say that Jonigkeit doesn't have his moments, but most of the time, he's so snide and stereotypically over-the-top that it's hard to detect an ounce of character, let alone feeling. That the same can be said of Kunken, a veteran who comes across as a flighty amateur here, leads one to suspect that director Rob Ruggiero's to blame.  

J'accuse, then! Ruggiero's production is a squalid, paint-by-numbers affair that cuts corners -- like character development -- all the way down to David Gallo's mirthless set design, which uses a spare, starlit backdrop for Sister Jamison's loopy monologues (the last of which "explains" the importance of said stars), and cranks out a few perfunctory white doors, chairs, and walls for the rehab center scenes. You'd think that space would be one of the key elements of a play about a druggie looking to escape, and the fact that Ruggiero so broadly lays out the stage shows how little he cares about containing and sustaining anything real, let alone dramatic. Here's a timely and appropriate metaphor for the effect: it'd be like rolling a blunt with a fishing net. Cody confesses that he was molested by one of his neglectful mother's Johns and Sister Jamison speaks of the problems with alcohol that made her turn to the convent: these are serious, weighty issues. But in the context of High, they slip right through the cracks, and the few emotions that do make it through, in a highly disconnected fashion, feel manipulative and unearned. (Much like the convenience of Cody being related to a terrible-at-his-job Father Michael.)

If High were a drug, it wouldn't even rate as skunk weed: it'd be baby powder, capable of satisfying only the good and truly deluded.

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