In “The Long Shrift,” Robert Boswell has written James Franco the flashy leading role of a hardened ex-con named Richard Singer who, as an awkward 18-year-old high school kid, was sent up the river for brutally raping the most popular girl in senior class. Ten years later Richard is out of prison and seething with rage, but beneath that fury he’s still the same sensitive, innocent kid. Unfortunately, Franco isn’t the star but the director of this play, and he’s entrusted the lead to a thesp who hasn’t a clue what to do — except imitate James Franco.
That tough-and-tender emo cocktail has always worked really well for Franco, on stage (“Of Mice and Men”) as well as in films. But he’s failed to pass on his skills to Scott Haze, a hot movie item (named one of Variety’s “10 Actors to Watch” in 2013) and frequent collaborator of Franco’s (“Child of God”), but a novice to legit whose emotional range as the volatile Richard is limited to “peeved.”
To be fair, the scribe doesn’t give him or any of the other underwhelming thesps much to work from. Boswell is one of those perennially promising talents who has worked his way around the foundation circuit, collecting beaucoup awards and fellowships to sustain his multi-faceted career writing novels, short stories, nonfiction and science fiction. But “Long Shrift” should set his playwriting ambitions back a peg or two.
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In tone and topic, the play is Sam Shepard Lite, the cri de coeur of an alienated son of the American West embittered by injuries inflicted at the whims of an unkind and unjust world. In a reversal of formula, father Henry (Brian Lally, another longtime Franco stalwart, but at a loss here) is no domestic tyrant but a spineless worm, and mother Sarah (Ally Sheedy, fighting a losing battle) turns out to be the monster. But the Texas locale reduces to a drab house in a featureless setting with no identity, and there’s nothing mythic — or even realistic — about the generic characters.
The plot is one of those maddening I’ve-Got-a-Secret dramatic constructs. Early on, a character will show up demanding a platform to tell his story, only to be hushed up and hustled off by the other characters until the final scene, when All Is Revealed in the most melodramatic fashion. Here, that Cassandra figure is Beth (Ahna O’Reilly), the high school sweetheart who branded Richard a rapist and had him put away for aggravated assault — and who now wants to explain why she has engineered his early release.
O’Reilly quietly conveys a sense of the guilt that Beth has been carrying around all these years, and you’d think that Richard would be just a tiny bit interested in what she might have to say for herself. But no, in defiance of all reason, he keeps pushing her away until the scribe finally allows him to face off with Beth in their big confrontation.
To fill in the big blank spaces between Beth’s early arrival on the scene and the Hail-Mary pass of her confessional scene, Boswell has come up with some pointless arguments between Richard and Henry, Henry and Sarah, and, of course, all those preliminary skirmishes between Richard and Beth. When he does venture out of his comfort zone of two-character scenes, it’s to present the spectacle of Richard and Beth making a joint onstage appearance at their tenth high school class reunion.
As if that weren’t preposterous enough, Richard has a “Carrie” moment in the school auditorium when he strips off his shirt in the middle of an angry rant to reveal a huge prison tat on his chest. But even that bit of drama comes off as phony. In the real world, when an 18-year-old prisoner is gang-raped by members of the Aryan Brotherhood, they do, indeed, brand him with a swastika tattoo — but it doesn’t go on his chest.