Lowell's Merrimack Rep has the best local rep for challenging new theatre; in the last year alone, they've brought us The Four of Us, Skylight, and A View of the Harbor. And that's precisely what makes their latest, Bob Clyman's Tranced (Zainab Jah and Mark Zeisler, at left) so disappointing. No doubt they selected this clunker based on the success of Clyman's Secret Order a year or two ago. But alas, lightning has not struck twice, and it's all too clear the Merrimack is well aware of that - indeed, this production spends a good deal of time, via sound and lighting cues, trying to fool us into thinking Tranced is some kind of meta-theatrical mystery tour. But instead, it's all too obviously a Hollywood thriller stripped down to four actors and a single set. Add George Clooney, some chases through Paris, and a briefcase wired to explode, and you'd be in business. As it is, you're oh, so not.
The plot, which feels slightly familiar from the start, has to do with a young African who comes to a psychiatrist because she can't concentrate. The shrink's specialty is repressed memory, so before you can say "Try Prozac!" she's in (yes) a trance, and recalling the trauma of witnessing a massacre in her homeland. The shrink (improbably) leaks a tape of this session to a journalist, who (even more improbably) starts chatting it up with some sort of Undersecretary of Global Corruption. But uh-oh, watch out everybody, there's a big plot twist coming! And if you can't figure out exactly what it is, then here's my AMC gift card: get thee to the movies.
I will say that Tranced was hypnotic in at least one way: watching it, I felt I was getting sleepy, very sleepy. The actors seemed to be losing focus too; I've never heard an entire cast go up on lines in a professional show, but that's what happened here, perhaps because director Kyle Fabel seems to have instructed everyone to stand four feet apart and declaim for a few moments, then re-arrange themselves on Campbell Baird's elegant, evocative set and declaim some more. The Merrimack's house style is always, frankly, somewhat rhetorical - which works beautifully when the playwright in question is Edward Albee or David Hare. With Bob Clyman, however, the style quickly congeals into flat-out oration, and without much in the way of physicalization or interaction, the actors are clearly having trouble simply remembering their lines. Still, Mark Zeisler brought some sophistication to his globalized psychiatric entrepreneur (who was even born at sea), and Zainab Jah deployed a striking hauteur as his patient. Even David Atkins had a few moments as a good old boy trying not to go wrong at the State Department (or wherever he was), but then there was the utterly blank and unconvincing Kimber Riddle as that journalist - surely the weakest performance I've seen on a local stage since some ART production that's now a repressed memory. Okay, enough; every theatre makes mistakes. Let's just snap out of Tranced and pretend it never happened.