A deus ex machina is almost always a problem. When a play resolves with an out-of-nowhere plot twist, it risks being branded a letdown or, worse, a copout. Undaunted, however, playwright Brian Harris delivers “Tall Grass,” a trio of playlets that all rely on contrived conclusions to deliver a climactic punch. Auds that love hearing “Gotcha!” should be amused, though even they may rankle at being blindsided three times in a row.
The plays are reasonably entertaining, but with endings that don’t arise organically from characters or situations, they feel hollow. Harris may want his switcheroos to remind us that power can change hands at any moment, but his message would be more forceful if the most powerful figure on stage weren’t the unseen playwright, shoehorning his awkward solutions into worlds that can’t really support them.
To the production’s credit, all three plays begin well. Each has a juicy setup — a woman becomes her boyfriend’s boss, a man catches a burglar in his home, a con artist tries to dupe an elderly couple — and each develops a high stakes. For instance, James (Mark H. Dold), the man being robbed, agrees to set the robber (Edward O’Blenis) free if he’ll run upstairs and kill James’ wife. This type of development flows logically from the action of a scene, encouraging us to pay attention.
Though all the segs veer toward violence and dark humor, Harris and director Nick Corley give each a distinct tone. The office love story has the fizzy energy of a romantic comedy, complete with a zany career gal (Marla Schaffel) who keeps falling off her desk chair. The burglary play has a threatening, sexual vibe as thesps slink around furniture, speak in each other’s faces, and eventually reveal dirty secrets. Meanwhile, the elderly couple (O’Blenis and Schaffel) bicker with the endearing rhythm of people who have been in love forever.
Thesps disappear inside their roles, making each character a unique creation. That’s a particular compliment to Dold, who could have turned his scheming boyfriend, smarmy wife-hater and slimy conman into one endlessly arched eyebrow. And Schaffel, known primarily for tuners like “Jane Eyre,” proves well equipped for a straight legit assignment.
In the transitions between plays, however, however, the production falls apart. Red light floods the stage, hard rock band Evanescence blares out of the speakers, and the actors, for no apparent reason, rip off their shirts and make out. This would be ridiculous even without the stagehands lumbering on in their black jeans and headsets to strike a stool before actors can simulate sex on it.
These frantic moments imply that all three plays are dangerous beneath their surfaces, but that’s not a welcome revelation. The segs have low-key openings in order to let the outbreak of chaos surprise us. By tipping its hand with frenzied scene changes, the production tells the audience what to expect. And the only thing worse than seeing three dubious plot twists is knowing in advance that they’re coming.