Though it’s constantly wandering off to yet another subject, Nancy Manocherian’s ambitious new play, “Guilty,” stands accused of heightening the discourse on aging and marriage with punchy interactions between its complex and flawed characters. The play is crammed perhaps too full of good ideas, leaving us with the frequent impression that we’ve missed a couple of lines during the characters’ jumpy dialogue. But “Guilty” rewards close attention with a smart, unpretentious portrait of four women on the cusp of crucial changes in their lives.
“He has the goose gene,” says discontented photographer Dori (Glory Gallo) of her long-suffering husband Adam (Darnell Williams). “They mate for life.” Despite Adam’s unbreakable fidelity, Dori wants more than her marriage can provide and is determined to get it from a local gallery owner. It’s not really discontent with Adam that Dori is fighting; it’s the feeling she’s getting old.
In one of the play’s funniest — and saddest — scenes, Dori faces a “mirror” (the audience) and tries to figure out exactly how old she has become. How much is she sagging? Can she successfully wear a shirt that shows her belly? How long does the fat on her leg ripple when she gives it a clinical smack (“One, one thousand; two, one thousand …”)?
It’s this insecurity that fuels Dori’s relationship with Laura, a statuesque, whip-smart, mildly evil thirtysomething who is trying to get a child out of her loutish husband Jake (Ned Massey). Between the four of them — Adam, Dori, Jake, and Laura — they hope to be able to support Marcie (Mary Ann Conk), whose husband is in trouble for freestyle bookkeeping.
Marcie’s hot little teenage daughter Lindsey (Tracee Chimo) is becoming increasingly difficult, too — her father’s absence is hard to explain, and Lindsey is old enough to smell condescension. “You’re lying about him,” she tells her mother. “And you dress like a retard.”
Throughout “Guilty,” Manocherian plays on our prejudices. As soon as we dismiss Lindsey as vapid and spoiled, she turns out to be awkward and vulnerable. Just when we’ve started to sympathize with Laura’s desire for independence from Jake, we learn the extent of her selfishness.
The men don’t quite get equal treatment; Adam is funny, patient, wise and in love with his insecure wife. He handles everything from her affair to their different races with a light touch (to Dori’s glib assertion that AA is “the new black,” Adam muses, “I thought I was the new black”). Jake, on the other hand, might as well drag his knuckles across the floor of his trendy apartment.
Gallo brings a shocking vulnerability to Dori that justifies the centrality of her character, but it’s a mistake to ignore the backdrop against which she performs. In the corners of the play lurks Chimo’s Lindsey, sexy and almost wordless, quietly growing up as the grown-ups around her work on their own problems. The dangers of facing adulthood alone aren’t made clear until the play’s final half-hour, but they hit home with surprising force. Dori’s fears may ache, but Lindsey’s quiet problems turn out to have a more literal sting.
Director Kira Simring has successfully created the impression that all these characters have known each other for years. The ensemble’s comfort with one another makes us comfortable by association, leaving them free to tell the story.
Nestled in between lines of aphoristic dialogue, Manocherian, Simring and their actors have hidden a real lament on the subject of adulthood and aging. There’s no moral here; only an oblique sense of hope for the future, whether we find ourselves able to run there, or in need of a cane and a few stops to catch our breath along the way.