NY Theater Review by JK Clarke
Tackling socially uncomfortable subject matter in a play is tricky business. If successful, the audience is taken on a journey that leaves them either enlightened or simply more informed, but nonetheless entertained. If unsuccessful, however, it’s difficult to walk away with anything but discomfort regardless of any positive elements, for they are lost in the ether of ill-ease. Unfortunately, Robert Boswell’s The Long Shrift, which has just had its world premiere by the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, falls into the latter category.
It’s probably easiest to blame the script. Director James Franco and a star-studded cast give it their best, but instead of tense and dramatic, it comes off clunky and awkward. This is Boswell’s second play, but he’s best known as an award winning short-story writer, and perhaps that’s what The Long Shrift should have been all along. Briefly, it’s the story of a working class high school senior accused (perhaps falsely, perhaps not) of raping a rich homecoming queen during a drunken hook-up at a party. He’s sentenced to ten years in prison, and even though she recants her story and he’s released after five years, his life is ruined. As is his parents’ and his accuser’s. It’s a terrible, heartbreaking story that would be utterly wrenching in the right narrative style. But not on stage.
The dialog is mostly expository. We are hearing conversations that take place only as a means to give us background; no one talks this way in real life. Worse still, it’s framed in banal small talk: “It’s like we’re squirrels moving our nuts. Have to be expecting a nuclear winter to expect so many nuts.” That’s the opening line and it sets the tone for a whole play’s worth of such gems.
As Sarah, the devastated mother of the accused, Ally Sheedy, an accomplished and celebrated actor, sounds disconnected and unconvinced by her words. And who can blame her? Neither are we. Brian Lally, as Henry the father, gives a noble effort with the most believable and sympathetic character in the piece. The accused himself, Scott Haze, a young upcoming actor who is in a number of James Franco’s upcoming films, is terrific, but perhaps too good looking and underwear-model rugged for a kid who was a “geek” in high school then spent five years turning into a hard-edged pseudo-Arayan in prison. His anger is real, but his polish is unfathomable. And as Beth, his accuser, Ahna O’Reilly plays an inconsistent character—though believably mentally unstable, she puts herself through unlikely scenarios here—as solidly as she possibly can. There are simply too many high-octane actors in this low-octane play and the disconnect is discomfiting.
To be falsely accused of anything is horrendous, especially a crime so evil as rape. Somehow it doesn’t feel as if that is given enough weight here. Sure, we are shown the aftermath, Richard ten years later as a man stripped of all hope; and he might be a fascinating study on his own. But to frame it in the context of a ten year high school reunion, with a semi-comic interlude (in the form of a Macy, a chirpy, ambitious and far-too-sexy high school class president—well played by Allie Gallerani), as a dramatic device is distracting, disconcerting and improbable. To take such a gravely serious subject and load it with unlikely scenarios lessens the gravity and robs the play of its potential. It doesn’t feel like a play that’s about something meaningful to the author, or based on real experience, but instead like a creative writing project. A tale of high school angst and regret taken to the “nth” degree.
On the surface, The Long Shrift has the makings of a strong, dramatic work. But it simply doesn’t happen here. Which is too bad, for it would be a treat to see this cast and director work on a substantive piece with real depth.
The Long Shrift. Through August 23 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place (between Perry and West 11th Streets). www.rattlestick.org