A Small, Melodramatic Story” is 10¢ pulp flouncing in literature’s ballgown. Essentially, the play is a “Law & Order” episode about a kid seeking vengeance on the cop who shot his brother, but Labyrinth Theater Company and playwright Stephen Belber try to tart up the tale with somber acting and monologues about emotional illumination. The pretension doesn’t wear well.
Trouble begins with the self-conscious title, which suggests Belber has written a throwaway script. However, by calling attention to the fact, he’s begging us to disagree. Before the lights dim, we’ve already been instructed to find deeper meaning.
But the plot just isn’t deep. It may be interesting to see O (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) confront her policeman boyfriend Perry (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) about a questionable shooting from his past, but it is never enlightening. It may be upsetting when her distrust leads to violent consequences, but it is never profound.
Belber tries to shoehorn philosophy between the action scenes by saddling O with faux-insightful speeches. Whenever she addresses the crowd, she says things like, “Transformative people … seize the broken day, fix the unfixable, transcend the ungodly, unstick the stuck heart. Knowledge is the saber with which they slay the demon night.”
The words are baroque and sound false in O’s mouth. Belber’s language never agrees with the middle-class background of his characters, which makes their philosophizing more tedious. Even his liberal use of curse words can’t make his pronouncements sound authentic.
Director Lucie Tiberghien only highlights the awkward self-seriousness. She stages the play likes it’s a religious ritual, with crosses and exits taking centuries to complete. When thesps aren’t performing, they often sit solemnly on the edge of the stage, like acolytes hearing sermons. And even in impassioned moments, the director lets them maintain that drowsy energy.
Since he manages some vivid bursts, Whitlock alone commands attention. He’s charming as he flirts with O, deciding to sing for her on a date and regretting it once he’s begun. Later, he passionately chastises her for her snooping, and his commitment is a relief, even if it disagrees with Tiberghien’s approach.
Helmer’s work may be intended to create a sense of gravity, but she makes the production seem uninterested in itself. She also ignores the notion of melodrama, which requires passionate conflict and blatant moral stakes. The writing is not clear enough to support such a contradictory interpretation.
Design choices are equally inscrutable. Though scenes occur in bars, bedrooms and restaurants, Takeshi Kata’s set is an unchanging white room with skylights in its ceiling and clear plastic windows on its floor. Filing cabinets serve as tables, and there’s a random ledge where O can curl up and ponder. Vague and cheap-looking, the scenery does little to enhance the production.
Ditto for Matthew Richards’ lights, especially in a final cue so bright it hurts the eyes. The glare implies a blinding revelation that the play cannot deliver.