The need to be important is basic within everyone, from killers craving notoriety to seemingly secure world leaders. Mark Eisman’s world-premiere drama “Shove” employs that universal desire as a dynamic basis for his story of a flighty, uneducated young woman who pressures her fellow jurors to acquit a suspected murderer and feels a sense of self-worth for the first time. The concept is sometimes superior to the execution, especially when Eisman belabors points and loses focus, but at its best, “Shove” heralds the arrival of a potentially major playwright.
Although many of the scenes are talky — particularly earlier ones, which take too long to set up the plot — Eisman’s dialogue has a quirky, crackling edge, capturing the disorganized, inarticulate way in which real people speak. Genette (Ann Noble), the central figure, is shown as an exhaustingly garrulous, gullible young woman who works at a newsstand with her protective guardian, Cathy (Liz Herron).
Security guard and fellow juror Seldon (Alex Douglas) hangs around worshipfully, awkwardly attempting to express how much he loves her. His love is mingled with anxiety, because Genette is bent on befriending the accused killer they both helped to free, a man who may have thrown a woman into the path of a speeding subway train.
Noble is believable and strong, but her Genette is relentlessly intense, and it’s hard to sympathize with the pain beneath her nonstop, frantic chatter. Her portrayal would benefit from reduced volatility and script trims.
Douglas is more likable as the lovesick Seldon, and his devotion has a puppyish honesty. His body language is remarkably inventive, yet he too could be toned down for greater effect.
Herron has little to do except comment and express concern, duties she handles with proper restraint.
“Shove” moves beyond exposition into starkly engrossing drama when Genette and Seldon track down the broodingly antisocial criminal Lowell. Under Sam Anderson’s arresting direction, Josh Gordon conveys his psychopathic nature through silence, uncertainty and muted hostility. He thanks Genette and Seldon for saving his life as though their contributions were irrelevant, murmurs weirdly, “I don’t like the way people look at me” and convincingly indicates distrust and a distaste for intimacy.
Gordon’s menacing understatement raises the stress level from scene to scene. Dangerously disturbed personalities are so often portrayed with gratuitous rages and mad, piercing stares that his approach is a revelation, and he sustains a sense of burning inner turmoil through the surprise ending.
The story functions on many levels: as a thriller that hints Genette may be murdered; as a love triangle; and as a study in identity problems. These multiple themes blur late in the second act, after too many resolutions divert attention from the Genette-Lowell relationship, and a few sequences could be cut or eliminated altogether.
The impact of the climax — which should concentrate firmly on the lethal collision — is diluted by speeches to the audience by Seldon and Cathy. The author makes philosophical points just when audience attention is directed to the action.
Action is more successfully utilized in a directorially ingenious fight scene between the jealous Seldon and paranoid Lowell. Instead of illuminating every punch, light designer Christian Epps stages the encounter in darkness; the noises of struggle and breakage provided by David B. Marling make the battle a crunchingly potent substitute for visuals.
Epps’ explosive lighting and Marling’s crashing sound are also strikingly used when all four principals stand on a subway platform and would-be assassin Lowell is forced to relive his traumatic experience and reveal his guilt or innocence. Lee Osteen II’s music, echoing the plunging, pulsating motion of a train, is equally accomplished at building a sense of panic and dread.