A play as insignificant and untidy as its title, Billy Goda’s “Dust” squanders its A-list cast and crew on an astonishingly lazy narrative that wouldn’t fill out a “Law and Order” episode without padding. The wannabe screenplay, billed as “a thriller,” lacks the craftsmanship and attention to detail that distinguish that genre’s twists and turns — the real puzzler is why such a lousy play got such a high-wattage production. With the combined powers of “Urinetown” star Hunter Foster, former Atlantic Theater Company a.d. Scott Zigler and magnetic newcomer Laura E. Campbell, “Dust” is very nearly worth sitting through.
In the producers’ defense, this is a script bound to trip up readers: the first 10 pages are pretty cool. Any organization with a submission policy that limits playwrights to an excerpt or a first scene is going to be wowed by the play’s initial burst of energy and its instantly recognizable characters: ex-con hotel handyman Zeke (Foster, who manages to keep his character seeming like a good guy even after a lot of horrible mistakes), and Martin (a wonderfully hateable Richard Masur), the entitled corporate toad who thinks it would be fun to push him around.
It would be much, much better for “Dust” if the characters never left this first room. What would happen to these guys if, say, they accidentally locked themselves in the hotel gym and had to hash things out? Instead, the story spirals out of control, moving around to no fewer than eight locations in less than two hours (with an act break, for some reason), all while maintaining a dogged naturalism that belongs in front of the camera, not onstage.
Zeke, who is not exactly flush with job offers after Martin gets him fired, spends plenty of time stewing over Martin’s cruelty. He eventually comes up with a revenge that involves picking up the guy’s college-age daughter Jenny (Campbell) at a bar, and leaving little tokens of his affection where Martin will be sure to stumble across them. Will Jenny complicate things by falling in love with Zeke? Will Martin be driven to new lows? Will Zeke’s old meth habit rear its ugly head?
Campbell deserves a gold star, or at least a purple heart, for doggedly flirting and teasing her way around some painfully oracular dialogue as the gorgeous, promising college girl soothes our hero, the jobless, drug-addicted felon. Not many people can offer the suggestion “Don’t fight against your greatness, believe in it and embrace it” without embarrassment, but Campbell manages to play a troubled 19-year-old even when her character sounds like Confucius.
In fact, the whole cast has an almost inappropriate confidence in characters that aren’t actually there, much to helmer Zigler’s credit. Between the three leads and strong supporting turns from Curtis McClarin and John Schiappa, the show actually manages to stumble forward until the final scene, in which the play’s puerile drugs ‘n’ guns trappings bust a final cap in the already-wounded story.
Watching the piece, it’s hard not to mentally reassemble the entire production around a better play. If nothing else, “Dust” is a wonderful example of what talented theater artists can do with very little.