In Robert William Sherwood's moody drama "Absolution," here receiving its American premiere, three characters attempt to come to terms with a murder committed 15 years ago. Two of them appear to have put the death behind them, but the third can't shake the horrible event.

In Robert William Sherwood’s moody drama “Absolution,” here receiving its American premiere, three characters attempt to come to terms with a murder committed 15 years ago. Two of them appear to have put the death behind them, but the third can’t shake the horrible event. It’s an interesting premise, to be sure, yet playgoers may find the quality of mercy strained indeed once Sherwood’s pretentious, logic-challenged show unfolds.

There is no shortage of atmosphere in Sherwood’s play; it’s common sense that seems to be missing. When the action begins, the once-promising David (Matt Letscher) is ensconced in a dead-end Toronto copy editing job. Lorraine (Jennifer Rubin), an old high school acquaintance, pays an unexpected visit, bearing a playing card (the queen of spades no less!) from David’s erstwhile best friend, Gordon (David Barry Gray), now a rich stockbroker.

The card is a secret signal for the pensive David to return to Vancouver, his home town. Once there, he aimlessly flirts with Gordon’s wife, Anne (Elizabeth Mitchell). Gordon has summoned David to help deal with twitchy Peter (Christian J. Meoli), the least successful of the trio, who following a religious conversion wants to confess their murderous sin. Years before, these men — then teenagers — raped a girl and left her for dead.

But nobody can quite recall where they buried her. Or even if they buried her. Most importantly, at least as far as the playwright is concerned, nobody remembers just who killed her. Sherwood’s drama centers on how this lack of certainty undermines these men’s lives, but his characters speak in such philosophical paragraphs as to strain credulity. Moreover, all of them — from ditzy Lorraine to cool Anne to garrulous Gordon — sound the same. And when they start stepping on each other’s lines a la Mamet, the play turns into a parody.

The acting is effective enough, with the quietly intense Letscher and the intriguingly distant Mitchell the best of the bunch. Willard Carroll’s elegant direction suits the work and even lends it more heft than it deserves. But it’s famed cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s lighting that commands the greatest interest. Fittingly harsh, it acts almost like a conscience here, accusing the characters of misspent lives and rebuking them for their lack of contrition. Had Sherwood properly workshopped his play, it might well have managed the same weighty task.

Absolution

Court Theater; 99 seats; $28 top

Production

Kacy Andrews, Meg Liberman and Tom Wilhite present a play in one act by Robert William Sherwood. Directed by Willard Carroll.

Cast

David - Matt Letscher Lorraine - Jennifer Rubin Anne - Elizabeth Mitchell Gordon - David Barry Gray Peter - Christian J. Meoli
Sets, Jim Dultz, Pipo Wintter; costumes, Meredith McLaughlin; lighting, Vilmos Zsigmond, Robert Jason. Opened March 4, 1999. Reviewed March 19. Closes April 11. Running time: 1 HOUR, 35 MIN.
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