It’s always fun to watch erudite and pompous moralists crash and burn. If a good dose of sexual perversion is what brings the bastards down, all the better. Playwright Bruce Norris focuses on just such a case in his new play “The Infidel ,” which tells the story of an Illinois Supreme Court justice whose spurned affections for a junior staffer turned him into a violent stalker. Despite some unnecessarily elliptical affectations that pull focus from the human drama at its core, “The Infidel” is an incisive, potentially powerful play.
One of the greatest pleasures in Anna D. Shapiro’s slick Steppenwolf Theater premiere is the central performance of Mike Nussbaum. A beloved septuagenarian Chi thesp, Nussbaum cut his teeth on the plays and films of his friend David Mamet, and he’s adept at conveying the clipped delivery of Mametian dislocation while still forging characters that are empathetic. Adroitly cast, Nussbaum is at the peak of his considerable skill in the role of Garvey.
Set in one room (with a few exterior excursions of the mind), “The Infidel” revolves around the central question of whether the incarcerated Garvey should be allowed to re-enter normal life. His pseudo-trial is being recorded, so the audience can watch the real fellow squirm in his seat and also see the simultaneous video images of his answers that play on the monitor in the rear. It’s a very poignant juxtaposition.
In a typically folksy performance, Robert Brueler nicely conveys the dilemmas of a jurist who must pass judgment on a former colleague. Also present are the victim of Garvey’s stalking (played by Charin Alvarez) and her relentless attorney (Will Zahrn), who recounts the judge’s sins — which include harassing phone calls, peeing on the woman’s car and even nastier deeds.
The judge’s supportive wife, Helen (Maureen Gallagher), is also in the room. Despite Gallagher’s dignified performance, this element of the play is problematic, since Norris doesn’t give sufficient reason for the woman’s loyalty to her husband. And the picture of a competitive and sexless marriage is too formulaic for complete credibility.
With extensive use of video, answering machine tapes and other post-modern paraphernalia, the play seems overly disjointed at times, with too much stuff on the television screen and too little present-tense drama. The decision to make the victim silent throughout the whole show should also be revisited.
Still, this is Norris’ best play to date. A Gotham-based actor who shows up as the stuttering schoolteacher in “The Sixth Sense,” Norris is also a talented scribe with considerable potential.