“Cold/Tender,” Cody Henderson’s world premiere play that opens the Theater @ Boston Court’s new season, is an ambitious work that tries to humanize reactions to the Cuban missile crisis, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the poverty and pain of Cuban citizens under Castro. Unfortunately, these events are trivialized by characters that behave with absurd inconsistency. A few notable performers try to stir up excitement, but scenes buckle under a torrent of talk and lack of suspense.
Director Jessica Kubzansky seeks to link the episodes through use of a single dollar bill that falls, at different times, into the hands of her protagonists. Susan Gratch’s video design, flashing information about the symbolic features of the bill, is expertly done. But the dollar seems like a contrivance, and Kubzansky herself inadvertently exposed the weakness of the device in a pre-production comment: “It really just became a theatrical convention to tell the stories I would later develop.” The dollar bill feels forced when it becomes clear that no great revelations will spring from it.
Henderson’s plot starts in 2004 Havana when vacationing journalist Dan (Hugo Armstrong) proposes to girlfriend Julie (Casey Siegenfeld) as their friend Kate (Ashley West Leonard), who once had an affair with Dan, looks on disapprovingly. This triangular undercurrent poses a looming danger to the Dan-Julie relationship, but the crucial storm cloud is Dan’s insistence on hanging out at the hotel and blinding himself to the bitter realities of Cuban poverty, while Julie wants to mingle with deprived citizens and face their agony.
The conflict has a synthetic aspect, since the movements of foreigners are tightly controlled in Cuba. Armstrong, however, is a strong actor, and he brings strength to Dan’s anxieties. He even pulls off the complexities of being shown as a villain, then revealed as a socially conscious hero, although the final confrontation — when his compassion fails to prevent Julie’s rejection — is both incredible and unsatisfying. Siegenfeld’s Julie remains a concept not a character, and neither her responses to Dan nor her friendship with Kate have any dramatic force.
As a panicky 1962 teenager facing the Cuban missile crisis, Mandy Freund contributes the show’s outstanding female portrayal. She has an imaginatively written role and gives her lines an eccentric, amusing twist. Even during an awkward, maddeningly overlong scene with friend Rhonda (Amanda Troop), in which the two girls discuss sex, Freund demonstrates the spark of a natural comedienne.
Equally winning is Johnathan McClain as Wesley, the boy they both find attractive. McClain also energizes a tautly directed 1986 Napa Valley sequence, confessing his loneliness and family misery to Ukrainian-born masseuse Sasha (Ann Stocking). But character inconsistency again surfaces, after he explodes at Sasha’s masseur husband Vlad (Alex Veadov) and all sympathy established for his sobbing confession is demolished.
Sasha and Vlad’s problems, including fear of a daughter’s death, don’t build dramatically, and the decision to translate their Russian dialogue via video is cumbersome. Veadov, a first-rate actor, has the power to make more of this character but is given too little to work with.
Act II suffers from the crosscutting effect of two stories on the same stage, and it becomes taxing to concentrate completely on either. One wants to beg lighting designer Jeremy Pivnick to black out a few characters now and then. Limp resolutions and lethargic pacing only exacerbate the situation.
Such nonsense as McClain’s Wesley expressing jealousy that his girlfriend once toyed around sexually at 8 years old simply wastes time. Moments like this reinforce the feeling that the material has been overloaded with semicomic, semidramatic blather and makes us wish enormous scissors had been employed to slash scenes in half and let the stronger story elements emerge.