Like most actors-turned-playwrights, Keith Reddin writes terrific characters, roles actors can really sink their teeth into. Somewhat more atypically, he’s also a big-picture playwright, tackling complex political themes with rare verve. Reddin stumbles with “The Innocents’ Crusade,” but it’s hard to get mad at a writer whose antihero so lacks focus that he half-heartedly concocts a crusade as a sort of pick-up line and then spends the rest of the play trying to figure out what his mission is going to be.
That he never does figure it out is “Crusade’s” biggest problem. The ending is so abrupt and inconclusive that one comes away thinking that the playwright simply threw up his hands and decided to be done with the sorry thing.
And perhaps that’s as it should have been. His last play, the far more accomplished “Life During Wartime,” was presented in this same space, Manhattan Theater Club’s Stage II. It ought to be a place where a playwright can see when something isn’t working and then decide to be done with it.
“Crusade” opens in a college admissions office, where Bill (Stephen Mailer) is spinning out an exuberant preppy fantasy of his goals. He seems like a preening twit; the officer (Harriet Harris) can’t get a word in edgewise and her bemusement quickly turns to a stiff impatience.
But it turns out to be a desperate front, as Bill trots out a similar spiel in a series of interviews, during a tour he’s taking with an alcoholic father (William Rebhorn) determined to cut him down and a determinedly non-confrontational mother (Debra Monk).
Bill can change personalities with each new interview because he doesn’t have a personality; he can only react to the adult forces around him. “The world is constantly surprising and amazing me,” he blurts out, but in truth it’s constantly disappointing him with its predictability.
That changes when he meets Laura (Welker White), a girl who’s been around the block some and who decides to join him when he comes up with the idea of a crusade.
Despite the father’s protest, she piles into the car with the rest of the family on the college trip. Eventually a second acolyte, a battle-scarred ex-postal worker (Tim Blake Nelson), also joins them.
There’s something about rootlessness in here and about the way kids can grow up with certain basic skills but no real intelligence, let alone a sense of purpose or a system of values. It’s a flat landscape where all the restaurants are called Country Kitchen and all the piped-in music is played on fluegelhorn.
Mark Brokaw’s production is accomplished and all of the performances are persuasive. Sets, lights and costumes are elemental and serve the play nicely. But the dramatic writing is, given Reddin’s extraordinary ear, uncharacteristically scattershot and attenuated.
And Bill never has a really defining moment; he remains a cipher on the verge of becoming an irritant. That’s unfortunate, because in that father, he’s got something pretty powerful to react against.