Playwrights Realm is a new company founded on “the admiration and devotion we feel toward the playwright.” While the sentiment is honorable, it has been taken to extremes by artistic directors John Dias and Katherine Kovner in their inaugural production, Anton Dudley’s “Substitution.” Less admiration and more editing might have helped this lugubrious weeper about the curious ways in which people bear the loss of a loved one. Extending some of that devotion to the actors might also have helped them with their thankless task of trying to animate essentially lifeless characters.
Jan Maxwell (“Coram Boy,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”), the marvelous Broadway musical performer for whom Dudley is said to have penned this drama, shows the material in its best light in her opening monologue as Calvin’s Mom, a single mother who has lost her only child in a high school boating accident.
“There are no words,” she whispers, looking wan and wasted with grief as she considers the platitudes that kind strangers offer to unfortunate people like herself. But, “there are always words,” she bravely insists, because “without them we’re, what: numb?”
The problem is, there are entirely too many words in Dudley’s lexicon, and Maxwell has to go through professional contortions to make the repetitive and unnecessary ones sound as sincere as those that really count. Maxwell never lets Calvin’s Mom down, capturing and holding our sympathy as she takes her through an agonizing procession of conflicting feelings, from pain and anger to acceptance.
But even this fine actress runs out of ways to make this mother believable as she repeatedly resists the evidence that another person also loved her son — and knew him better than she did.
That mysterious mourner is Paul (Kieran Campion), a young substitute teacher at Calvin’s school who came to know the sensitive teen with a degree of intimacy and intensity that, with constant repetition, becomes downright creepy.
“He and I had a bond,” Paul tells Calvin’s Mom, who furiously resists, but eventually accepts the fact that this bond was “stronger” than her own. Just as furiously, but with the same sense of inevitability, she also resists, and then accepts Paul’s transference of those feelings to her.
To his credit, Campion works to keep the creepiness at bay by maintaining Paul’s air of youth and innocence. But with such repetitive material, in a talky play almost devoid of event, it’s almost a given that Campion should fall into mannerisms and Maxwell should get screechy.
Some distraction (although the scribe would undoubtedly call it by some other name) from this emotional tug-of-war is provided in flashback scenes with Julie (Shana Dowdeswell) and Dax (Brandon Espinoza), two students costumed as superheroes and on their way to that fateful class boat trip.
“I wonder, sometimes, who the others were,” says Calvin’s Mom, who dreams about “those unknown others.” In a more realistic theater piece, something would surely be made of that impulse. But in the solipsistic world of Dudley’s play, the woozy interludes with Julie and Dax are just another platform for more quasi-lyrical ruminations on love and loss.