For someone who has never worked in the theater, novelist (“Mystic River”) and TV scribe (“The Wire”) Dennis Lehane shows touching faith in the dramatic form to illuminate the murky plot of his crime drama, bump up the action and give definition to its unfinished characters. Which is not to say this play couldn’t be done justice in a proper workshop setting — but not in this bone headed production, which gets everything backwards, stifling action, obscuring meaning and burying characters in bombastic perfs by clueless amateurs.
Lehane’s material is less than stageworthy in its current form, but it’s offbeat enough to be intriguing. Based on scribe’s own short story “Until Gwen” (originally published in the Atlantic Monthly and included in two best-of-the-year anthologies), play uses the two-act structure in a smart way to give a sinister air of mystery to those alarming scraps of conversation one tends to overhear in bars. (Are those people in the next booth really plotting a murder — or just discussing some French film noir classic?)
Adapting the narrative conventions of a crime novel to a stage setting, Lehane carefully lays down the particulars of time, place, character and situation in act one. In act two, everything is turned upside down, forcing aud to reconsider every character, re-examine every action, rethink the so-called facts. Even the timeline has to be redrawn.
Before the big switcheroo, action appears to be confined to some generic bar on some nameless highway — the ideal noir setting for the dirty deals going down. In one booth, lovers Gina and Will (Rebecca Miller and Lance Rubin) plot the murder of her husband. At another table, a psychiatrist (Jason MacDonald) and the highly strung patient (Kathleen Wallace) with whom he’s having an illicit affair discuss her homicidal history. Throwing his weight around in a third booth, a belligerent father (Gerry Lehane) browbeats his son, Bobby (Avery Clark), about a woman named Gwen (Maggie Bell) who seems to have gone missing with a stolen $3 million diamond.
The relationships are broadly schematic, and even before everyone starts acting out, the dialogue is absurdly over-the-top. But every once in a while, someone says something that pins your ears back. Like the spirited defense given by one barfly guilty of a capital crime: “I’ll bet there’re people everywhere — right now, right here in this bar tonight — who’ve done a whole lot fucking worse.”
For all its excesses, the play has potential, and some savvy director might yet find a way to move the action out of the bar and into reality. (And while he or she is at it, give Lehane a dialogue lesson in Pinteresque understatement.)
But there’s really no way of evaluating the text in the abominable shape it’s in here, cramped on a stage with less floor space than a prison cell and criminally manhandled by actors who think they’re playing to the top row of the Minskoff — or the uppermost cellblock in San Quentin.