By Michael Bracken
True or false? The United States government, not foreign terrorists, was responsible for the 9/11 collapse of the World Trade Center. If you’re not sure, don’t expect Richard Squires’s A Blanket of Dust, at the Flea Theater, to help you decide. An apologia for laying the blame on the steps of the US power establishment, Squires’s drama fails to make a cogent case for its hypothesis. It rambles, repeats, and even contradicts itself.
Blanket starts on a strong dramatic note. On September 11, 2001, Diana Crane (Angela Pierce), in her Washington, D.C. living room, gets a call from her husband, trapped at the top of the north tower of the World Trade Center. They talk, lose contact, talk again, lose contact forever. She jumps into her car and heads to New York.
By smiling and flashing an EMT badge, Diana gets surprisingly easy access to the maximum-security site. Then, after 7 World Trade Center collapses, a fireman volunteers that it looks the way a demolition should – all piled up, unlike Towers 1 and 2, where all that’s left is dust and steel.
When she gets back to D.C., buoyed by comments from television anchors Peter Jennings and Dan Rather, Diana is convinced that there were demolition charges in the towers that took them down (even though we were just told demolition would have left them in piles).
Diana shares her opinion with her family. Her father (Anthony Newfield), a prominent, apparently liberal, senator, is a likable blend of cynicism and practicality. He knows the government’s potential for evil, but he also knows where his bread is buttered. In any event, he doesn’t buy into Diana’s analysis.
Her brother Charlie (James Patrick Nelson), a national reporter for the Washington Post, is also astute about abuses of power, but, like Dad, can’t endorse Diana’s take on the 9/11 tragedy.
And then there’s Vanessa (Alison Fraser), Diana’s ditzy Mom, eminently entertaining and sporting an unidentifiable accent. As much as she loves her daughter, her DNA is simply not programmed to question the official story. Coifed and coutured to a fare thee well, she’s the only cast member whose hair stylist gets a credit in her program biography, as well he should. Her auburn page boy wig is both stylish and flattering, and her impeccably tailored outfits straight from the pages of (Senior) Vogue.
Christopher Metzger gets credit for costume design.
Diana does no better outside the family. She’s a voice in the desert, raging against the machine, viewed as deluded by some, as a madwoman by others.
Fast forward fifteen years. Diana becomes involved with Andrew Black (Tommy Schrider), mischievous owner of The Radical Solution, an extremist bookstore/café, where he performs a daring but insipid cabaret act. While still obsessed with 9/11, Diana has broadened her horizons and is now more all-inclusively anti-establishment. The play ends on a sort of Joan of Arc (who’s mentioned twice earlier) note, tragically, sanctimoniously, and inanely.
As Diana, Pierce has her work cutout for her. It’s not easy to be Cassandra, earnestly proclaiming what she holds to be true again and again, only to be consistently derided. While she doesn’t vary her approach much, Pierce displays great strength and determination, at least until things fall apart at the end. Schrider’s playfulness is spot on for Andrew; we wonder where it went in the play’s final minutes.
Brendan Boston’s set is white: white floor, curtains, walls, molding, and plastic chairs. At one point, Lighting Designer Daisy Long turns it red for a brief interlude, but otherwise think white.
Except for his overseeing Andrew’s cabaret number, Christopher Murrah’s direction is cohesive, but cohesion is hardly enough to make this drama work. The play’s seriousness and misguided idealism weigh heavy. Fraser’s Vanessa and Andrew’s fleeting whimsy are the only hints of levity, and they’re just not enough to deflate A Blanket of Dust’s self-importance.
Photos: Sharon Kinsella
Through Wednesday, June 20th at the Flea Theater Mainstage, 20 Thomas Street, NYC 10007. www.ablanketofdust.com . 90 minutes, with no intermission.