Getting a divorce was hell back in the 1950s, an era in American history that Brit scribe Matt Charman sharply invokes in “Regrets” with a sympathetic treatment of a bunch of guys camped at a rustic motel in the Nevada desert, waiting out the state’s six-week residence requirement. Although the men in this forlorn group run to type, one of them has a secret that’s dangerous enough to be interesting. But the scribe cuts off analysis and discussion too soon after the Big Reveal, and the political issues he raises lose more of their impact in this sluggish production.
One thing Manhattan Theater Club knows how to do is put on a good-looking show, so there’s much to please the eye in Rachel Hauck’s generously detailed and warmly lit (by Ben Stanton) camp setting. Three of the four primitive wooden cabins house average-looking guys sporting the drab period fashions supplied by costumer Ilona Somogyi — right down to the god-awful ugly haircuts.
Alvin (Richard Topol), who owns a pet shop back home in the Bronx, still loves his wife and is in deep mourning for his marriage. Gerald (Lucas Caleb Rooney), a store detective from Colorado, misses his old life as a sergeant in the Army. Ben (Brian Hutchison), a former high-school teacher from Chicago, actually got his divorce three years ago, but his wounding war experiences left him with such a cynical worldview that he’d just as soon stay in the desert.
Trying to make the best of a bad situation, the men cook communal meals, play cards and games, and occasionally interact with a pretty young prostitute named Chrissie (Alexis Bledel) who sneaks into camp on a bike. The three of them get along by observing camp protocol: sit, wait, talk about movies and baseball — but “no politics, no red terror.”
These rules have to be explained to Caleb (Ansel Elgort), the new resident of the fourth cabin, who fascinates them all. This 18-year-old just blew in on a bus from Los Angeles, claiming to be getting a divorce like the rest of them. But the kid is so young and recently married that the three older men put down bets on what his real game is.
This being post-war America, certain possibilities suggest themselves. Caleb claims to be an electrician for a film studio, so maybe he’s running away from some Hollywood scandal. The Commie-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee was all over the movie industry in those days, so that’s another possibility. This was also the era when the new Interstate Highway System gave criminals free access to travel the open road, so the kid could be a thief, a con man, or even a serial killer.
The mystery is answered at the end of Act I and eventually resolved with a grand gesture. But gestures work better in the movies than in the theater, which places more value on the articulate expression of long thoughts and deep feelings. Caleb is given so little stage time to tell his story that he remains pretty much the cipher he’s been throughout the play.
Caleb’s dilemma does force the guys at the camp to examine their own values and take a moral stand, which is good for their characters and critical for the play. But given Carolyn Cantor’s minimalist directorial style and the thesps’ low-keyed perfs, the impact is less than thrilling.
The only time the stage really lights up is when Adriane Lenox turns up as Mrs. Duke, the African-American widow who owns this white guys’ camp. Memorable for her powerful performance in “Doubt,” Lenox brings the same flashing spirit to a technically minor character who walks off with the whole show.