Thursday, September 20, 2012

Arrested development at Merrimack

What's past is prologue in Homestead Crossing.

William Donnelly's Homestead Crossing - at Merrimack Rep through September 30 - is the kind of new play that is just good enough that you wish it were even better.  It's steadily amusing - and to be fair, it's also, finally, intriguing; yet it almost cries out not to be produced yet, because it's only about two thirds of what it could be.

But how is that possible, you may ask, given the rigors of today's "development" process?  Well - you've got me there! But honestly, by now I have no faith in said process, and I wonder - can we just start calling it the "grooming" process instead? Because over and over again, I find scripts that have gone through development come out buffed to a high (superficial) sheen, but are still afflicted with their original structural and thematic issues (which are now in a way permanent).  If you doubt me, simply check out The Motherfucker with the Hat at SpeakEasy, which spent three years in development, and came out stuffed with hilarious zingers - yet structurally it could almost pass for a first draft.


A similar problem afflicts Homestead Crossing; you can feel playwright Donnelly coasting on his dialogue skills for close to an hour (out of a 90-minute play).  He's even sophisticated enough to hint that he knows exactly what he's doing - one character actually quips about scripts that only boast "a pivot and a twist."  So we pretty much know what's coming - especially as the play fits neatly into one of Merrimack's favorite genres: the two- or three-hander that conceals a spooky little surprise.

But when the big reveal does arrive in Crossing (the play takes a left turn into Twilight Zone territory, as re-written by Edward Albee), we're hardly cross.  In fact we're relieved that Donnelly has, indeed, had an intriguing trick up his sleeve all along.  But then we quickly sense we're being hustled toward the exit, or at least the epilogue - what in a more ambitious play would have been a new springboard of dramatic speculation, a major complicating incident, here turns out to be the climax.

Face to face - but with a fantasy.
Which strikes me as too bad, because I think Donnelly has more in him.  What this (local) playwright has given us so far is a witty, wearily bemused meditation on the fate of many a long-term relationship: Noel (David Adkins) and Anne (Corinna May) are a couple clearly becalmed on the shoals of mutual frustration when we meet them on a rain-soaked afternoon in the comfortable confines of their suburban home (atmospherically designed and lit by Anita Stewart and Paul Hackenmueller, respectively).  Their dysfunctional calm is shattered, however, by the arrival of the soaked Claudia (Lesley Shires) and the stoned Tobin (Ross Cowan), two damaged free spirits kind of on the lam from something, and kind of about to make a break for freedom somewhere else.

Hmmm.  If you can sense the buried parallels and potentials in this set-up, then you're halfway to guessing the metaphysical back-flip Donnelly has in store for you.  The trouble is that beyond that big conceptual gambit, the playwright doesn't have too many cards to play; so his script quickly settles into the well-worn grooves of a certain familiar boomer fantasy.

In the meantime, though, audiences can still enjoy the skillful ensemble on display at Merrimack.  The youngsters, Shires and Cowan, make a stronger impact, I think, than their seniors - Cowan is effortlessly sexy in his shaggy way, and Shires's fractured sparkle is particularly intriguing, although David Adkins's carefully wary Republican did often tickle my funny bone.  Only Corinna May, as his beyond-bored wife, seemed to me somewhat too submerged in her characterization; it was hard to believe that even a wrinkle in time could really awaken her lust for life.  And the stripped-down acting style that is Merrimack's signature - here guided by director Kyle Fabel - didn't help her much; it's fine for a richer script than this, but with such streamlined stage action, Donnelly's one-liners leave us aware of a certain thinness in both meaning and manner.

And it's hard, as the curtain falls, not to note this play's echoes of such meatier conceptual cousins as Albee's A Delicate Balance - a script which continually extended the reach and ramifications of its superficially-similar set-up.  Does Donnelly have that kind of dramatic mojo in him?  I don't know - but if he does, he's going to have to bring it to the party himself, it won't be "developed" for him.

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