John Cariani's playwriting is much like his acting: unfocused and manic, but earnest in its way. These qualities contributed to the coolly charming evening of short plays he scripted, Almost, Maine, which played at the Daryl Roth Theatre earlier this year, and revealed Cariani as a romantic playwright with a sentimental streak.
His latest venture, cul-de-sac, which Transport Group is producing at the Connelly Theater, returns us to the world of the Motel he played in Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway and the Speed he played in Two Gentlemen of Verona in Central Park: almost, but not quite. This play, which is directed by Jack Cummings III, also explores the vagaries of contemporary relationships, but annoys more than it informs or warms: It proves Cariani, whether onstage or off, is a master only of the short form.
Each of cul-de-sac's three couples illustrate a different aspect of living in a relationship. As structured, the play could be titled Keeping Up With the Joneses: Both the Johnsons (Robyn Hussa and John Wellmann) and the Smiths (Monica Russell and James Weber) envy their next-door neighbors, the Joneses (Nicole Alifante and Cariani), who apparently have the cars, kids, and inability to keep their hands off of each that everyone wants as their marriages mature. The play's sole message is that those impressions don't always jive with reality.
But we must take the usual circuitous route to get there. That means a detour through the Johnson house, as they argue about literal interpretations of trite phrases ("Whatever makes you happy," being the most caustic), and the Smith house, where recovering from a family tragedy means confusion between food, sex, and personal intimacy. By the time we get to the Jones house, it's no surprise that they feel they're trapped in a rut, and will do anything necessary to escape being slaves to the dreaded Usual.
The dialogue, bursting with metaphor, is close to kin to Almost, Maine's whimsicality, but as each couple's confrontation is stretched out over roughly 30 minutes instead of 10, rancidity sets in at a much more rapid pace. The couples' revealing, creating, and resolving problems, just to test the boundaries of Cariani's linguistic conceits, always feels manufactured, and never like a genuine attempt to illuminate men and women's inability to communicate honestly.
Cummings, working with Sandra Goldmark's too-sparse set and with R. Lee Kennedy's too-green lighting, does nothing to normalize matters. He chooses to keep the audience at an emotional distance with both his staging (all six actors share the stage nearly the whole time, physically intruding on each other's scenes, even if they don't speak) and the performers' acting: Just about everyone's hopelessly outsized style, which would be overdoing it in the Metropolitan Opera, reads in the Connelly little more than cheesy camp.
The remarkable exception is Cariani, whose caffeine-buzz persona and shoulder-shrugging, Everyman physicality is a flawless fit for Joe Jones. He slumps and, when necessary, dances his way through his scene, cul-de-sac's darkest and weirdest, with the expectant enthusiasm of a man about to propose to his girlfriend. There's something so likable, so real, about his work here that one can't help but wonder how his Motel or Speed might have played in tiny houses instead of the barns they ended up in.
But even the fun Cariani brings to his own role isn't enough to energize the rest of the play, which tries so hard to be offbeat it actually ends up as the deflatingly normal experience it's trying to avoid. If Almost, Maine was an intriguing weekend road trip, cul-de-sac is a dramatic dead end.