Playwright Richard Nelson has a disappointing way of punctuating his “Life Sentences.” His play by that name has stretches of monologue that are both comical and poignant, with either of his two characters offering protest-too-much confidences that betray their true feelings. It’s a modest diversion until a clunky line or obvious bit of dramaturgy erupts like an exclamation point to remind us that this play, for all its heartfelt angst, is little more than an actor’s exercise.
And an overlong one at that. Everything these two characters — both by turns engaging and annoying — need to say could have been whittled into a slick one-act (Nelson originally wrote Burke’s monologue as a solo piece). But at more than two hours, the he-said-she-said confessions, fairly transparent from the first stammer anyway, grow a bit tiresome.
Nelson’s scenes from a cohabitation are structured as lengthy monologues as he, in the first act, and she, in the second, address the audience. He is Burke (Edward Herrmann), a middle-aged English professor at a second-rate upstate New York college. She is Mia (Michelle Joyner), a 25-year-old former barmaid and single mother whose used-and-abused past has left her with all the self-confidence of a beaten puppy.
The monologues take place over two or three days, at locations — effectively suggested by Thomas Lynch’s economical sets — that range from a Penn Station bar to various spots in the couple’s farmhouse. Loose plot has prof recruiting a guest speaker — a Polish emigre writer, unseen onstage — only to have the drunken guest seduce Mia.
All of this occurs offstage, with Burke and Mia slipping away from the action to talk to the audience. Good enough, since the situation plays a distant second to the psychological dynamics of the couple’s relationship. Nelson wants to show how, despite their obvious surface differences, the characters fit together, their insecurities binding them to one another.
Director John Caird keeps his actors busy during the talks, and Herrmann certainly has a command of both the intimate setting and his character. But the actor is let down by a playwright who broadcasts the prof’s every nuance. We know Burke’s pomposity is a cover for insecurity 10 minutes into his first windy soliloquy.
Joyner is handed an even more difficult task. As written, Mia is something of an intellectual groupie, or, rather, a groupie for intellectuals, passed around from one teacher or writer to the next. The character’s oft-recalled mother apparently had the same hobby, leading audience to wonder whether such bimbos-for-academia actually exist, and, if so, why they remain so staunchly unsophisticated for their efforts.
In any case, Burke and Mia might be better used as secondary roles in a more developed play, but even that would require considerable fleshing out to advance the duo beyond their status as cultural types.
Biggest problem, though, is that despite the psyche-delving, audience is hard-pressed to believe that Burke and Mia would ever be together. There’s not an ounce of real love onstage, nor any significant emotional connection beyond neurotic wound-licking. Co-dependents everywhere deserve better representation.