The men in Brett C. Leonard’s new play “Unconditional” have no idea how to deliver a good pickup line. They run the gamut from hopelessly mean (“You’re not a kid anymore”) to brutally honest (“I don’t know that you’re the one, but I do know my wife isn’t”). But nowhere do they approximate confident friendliness. And that’s “Unconditional” all over: clever, attention-getting and not very nice.
Which is not the same as declaring it’s not very good. Much of “Unconditional” — particularly the brutally honest parts — sounds like a well-told joke or an open debate, doling out hope on the way to the play’s resolution like a trail of bread crumbs. And Leonard is anxious to enthrall, too, opening with a scene of a black man lynching a white man and then pushing forward with a series of further role reversals (none quite as dramatic) engineered to generate a nasty kind of delight. We jump rapidly from characters like Keith the thug (John Doman) to Missy the junkie (Anna Chlumsky) to Daniel the exec (Trevor Long) and back again. The laugh lines are smart, and the structure is solid.
After about a dozen of these vignettes, though, one begins to suspect not that Leonard won’t write long scenes but that he can’t — exploring these characters in depth would be like scuba diving in a duck pond.
Violence, sex, drugs and racism are the subjects of interest here, and when the characters stop fighting, grinding, slurring and shooting up, Leonard is left with bitchy ice queens or saintly husbands browbeaten into infidelity. They’re characters that Charles Dickens might have worked into a cockeyed tapestry around a central figure like Oliver Twist or David Copperfield, but there’s no such locus here, and Leonard isn’t Dickens. The play’s apogee is not its cop-out ending but the brutal sex scene between caring black boyfriend Spike (Chris Chalk) and his meth-nuts white girl (Chlumsky), simply because all the requisite shocks are present.
But Mark Wing-Davey has staged this piece beautifully, and with Mark Wendland’s shifting pegboard set bleeding the brief scenes into one another, “Unconditional” starts to add up to something in spite of itself.
The best moment in Saturday evening’s press performance came by accident: After a furious argument between Westchester couple Lotty (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) and Gary (Kevin Geer), she grabs his computer keyboard and smashes it. The scene changes twice, swiftly, and in a few moments, there’s Daniel pacing around his office as recent ex-employee Newton (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) rages at him. At this point, on Saturday, Long stepped on a stray computer key that some harried stagehand had missed in the transition. That accident emphasized everything that “Unconditional” tries and fails to address: the joy of the chance encounter, the problem of fragility in an unpredictable world and the interconnectedness of lonely people.
It’s both easy and tempting to dismiss “Unconditional” as yet another playwright’s audition to write for “Law & Order”; the script’s contrivances are wearying and familiar, especially to anyone who has seen “Crash.” But the staging and dead-on acting do something to the play that few institutional theaters are willing to do, opening the flawed work of a talented writer up to the possibilities presented by the stage.