The calculations that went into Second Stage’s premiere production of “Trust” would put a Las Vegas poker shark to shame. As scribe, Academy Award-nommed screenwriter-director Paul Weitz is a known creative entity. For star players, you can also go to the bank with hotties like “Scrubs” heartthrob Zach Braff and Broadway honey Sutton Foster. And how can you miss with a comic plot about an unhappy dot-com millionaire who engages a professional dominatrix to help him work out his marital problems? But for all these promising elements, “Trust” falls flat, its bright ideas wasted on cartoon characters in contrived situations.
As a Hollywood phenom who scored big on “American Pie,” Weitz undoubtedly knows from experience how it feels to make out like a bandit on your first major venture — and then wonder where to go next.
After the initial thrill, that kind of crazy success comes with a “deeply deflating” downside, according to Harry (Zach Braff), the hapless schnook who made a fortune when he sold the overvalued Internet company he started from scratch.
In a perfect piece of casting (executed by helmer Peter DuBois), Braff draws on immense reserves of charm to make us care about Harry, so dumbfounded by his tragicomic “Kafkaesque” situation that he can’t decide whether he’s happy or miserable. Working his amiable grin and self-effacing slouch into the characterization, Braff walks Harry right into the loving arms of his audience.
Foster, a Tony winner for “Thoroughly Modern Millie,”doesn’t fare as well as Prudence, the whip-wielding dominatrix Harry consults out of sexual frustration. Miscast (possibly deliberately so) in this iconic role, she looks great in costumer Emilio Sosa’s lickable black boots, but she can’t summon up the commanding personality of a dominatrix or hit the right note to play it for comedy.
Nevertheless, the initial encounter between hapless Harry and his unlikely sex therapist (played out on Alexander Dodge’s stylishly minimalist set of a dungeon) is the funniest and most original scene in the play.
The comedy drops into more conventional territory once the other characters come forward. Ari Graynor (“The Little Dog Laughed”) is properly frosty as Harry’s emotionally detached wife, Aleeza (so unresponsive she reads a book during Harry’s exhaustive efforts at oral sex). And Bobby Cannavale (“Mauritius”) couldn’t be sexier — or scarier — as Prudence’s violence-prone boyfriend, Morton.
But neither character has any real guts for these thesps to play, serving as they do to further the playwright’s brief that nobody in this dark comedy is what they appear to be. What “trust” has to do with their arbitrary actions is anyone’s guess, but it’s obvious that each of the four characters has a secret self that will reveal itself in due time — and after much witty, but essentially pointless, badinage.
Weitz has something he wants to say about the all-too-human yearning to step out of one’s protective skin and stand revealed as a crybaby or a bitch or a really nasty guy. And he has the verbal skills to shape that yearning into bright if brittle soundbites. But for all their confessional statements about who they are and who they want to be, his characters are too busy talking about themselves to show us in dramatic terms what really makes them tick.