New Century Theatre, Theatre 14 at Smith College. Directed by Ed Golden
A very clear and effective production of an unusually interesting play. Kenneth Lonergan has somehow contrived to meld two different genres of play together, combining a sort of mystery-suspense drama with a character drama of great human interest. What pulls it all together is the way three out of the four characters confront an excruciating personal dilemma — over the increasingly high cost, in social terms, of maintaining one’s personal integrity.
The centerpiece of the play, the linchpin that holds it all together, is the character of Jeff, the lobby security guard, played wonderfully and most convincingly by David Mason. Mason is a directionless ne’er-do-well as Jeff, who stumbles and survives almost by accident, or by sheer bumbling momentum, as he hangs on by a thread to his security job, falls in love with a rookie cop, Dawn (who has her own problems asserting her integrity in the face of pressure from a corrupt fellow policeman, Bill), and tries to stay on the good side of William, the captain of the security detail, whose brother has, it seems, been an accomplice to the brutal murder of a nurse in a hospital and needs William to lie for him to establish an alibi. The one character who has no apparent conflicts is Bill, the seasoned policeman who has taken the rookie, Dawn, under his wing — with ulterior motives that amount to sexual harassment. He is a menacing, powerful presence who wants to shape and control everyone and everything to his hoped-for advantage, but who is caught in a lie and given his comeuppance by Dawn, who turns him in for corrupt behavior despite the real disincentives provided by Bill’s sleazy threats and the self-protective culture of the New York Police Department, into which Dawn is experiencing a baptism by fire.
This interesting combination of three analogous actions, thematically paralleled (Jeff’s, William’s, and Dawn’s), and some searching analysis of individual character beyond the strict needs of the action itself, establish the complexity of dramatic fiction that makes for a potentially engrossing theatrical experience. That potential is fully realized in Ed Golden’s crystal clear, beautifully and crisply paced production. As a colleague of Ed’s for many years, observing his work in the UMass Theatre Department from the near perspective of the English Department, I have had the advantage and pleasure of seeing many such pieces of work on his part. He has a way of leading his audience quickly to the center of the play and then, through his great talent for working with actors, keeping them there for the entire duration of the performance. His direction is in this respect perfectly transparent. He is everywhere and, yet, nowhere to be seen, allowing the actors to shine. Here, the casting — for which we have Sam Rush, producing director of NCT, to thank — is superb, resulting in finely framed, three-dimensional portraits without even a hint of a blurred outline.
What an unalloyed pleasure to see so skillfully written a play so ably performed. There can hardly be better theatre than this in all of New England, summer or winter.