The characters in Promised Land, Harvey Huddleston's new play at the American Theatre of Actors, are all looking for a better life. Each one is hanging onto the thin thread of hope that imbues them with the certainty that better days lie ahead. But sometimes hope, however fervent, just isn't enough to break through the aches and pains of everyday life and make those better days actually happen.
Robbed of his sight and his only son in a farming accident, E.L. Sullins (David Mazzeo) can only cling to his business - selling land in the Ozarks - and his dream of starting a retreat for the blind. He wants the blind to live with as much dignity as those with sight, and he'll mow down the dreams of anyone who gets in his way, whether it's his wife Robby (Lynne McCollough) or young friend and almost surrogate son Charley Parker (Mathew Faber).
One can't argue the intensity of E.L.'s character as Huddleston has created him; the idea of having so much stripped away that grasping any lingering hint of hope is all that keeps you going is a strong one. But Huddleston's script is too busy, incorporating characters like the friendly law officer Elmer (Bruce McKinnon), or Charley's girlfriend Betty (Emily Sproch), or her violent father without developing them properly.
When E. L. is eventually left alone to reflect on the remains of his tattered life (as was inevitable from the beginning), Huddleston has already displayed his skill at incorporating a dazzling array of clichés and familiar ideas. E.L. is a compulsive drinker and smoker, his troubles with his wife predate his accident, a night of revelry lands him in the hospital... The downward spiral of E.L.'s life has been so compressed into the course of the play that none of it feels real, and little of it has a dramatic impact.
These problems aren't helped by Tom Dybek's direction, which is alternately ponderous and unfocused. Andrew Donovan's attractively shabby real estate office set and Richard Lichte's lights do help, as does McCullough's particularly fine performance, which finds impressive depths of feeling in Huddleston's frequently predictable and surface-level dialogue. Sproch uses her youthful vivacity as Betty to give the play a shot in the arm during her scenes.
But it's Mazzeo's performance on which Promised Land turns, and he's only intermittently effective. He portrays E.L.'s blindness quite convincingly, but can't make vivid enough emotional sense of his character's mood swings to give the play the momentum it needs to survive an often glacial second act. His breakdown scene, so key to the play, is practically interminable, and never successfully ties together the disparate elements of character Huddleston has introduced. That it's followed by a scene including an almost laughably unrealistic sex act doesn't help matters.
It's likely that moment, like so many others in Promised Land, would benefit from being surrounded by a tighter play populated with more specific characters. Huddleston's passion for his subject shines through his often troublesome (and tiresome) play and suggests that he's on the right track at identifying the nature of the fragile bonds between people and oneself. But overall, Promised Land, like the characters it presents, hasn't yet found what it's searching for.
The Red Earth Ensemble, in association with Focus Productions