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Guilty

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Guilty
Glory Gallo and Darnell Williams
Photo by Monique Carboni.

At the intersection of middle-age ennui and bleeding-heart good intentions lies Guilty, a tidy little mess of a play by Nancy Manocherian that the Cell Theatre Company is presenting at the Acorn Theatre. In this all-out brawl between six friends-in-name-only colliding over their rights to use and abuse themselves and others to the fullest extents of deplorability, no one bearing any recognizable trace of self-interest emerges unscathed.

So it's fitting that director Kira Simring and set designer Tim McMath have transformed the stage into a giant boxing ring, so that all the bruising and bullying is put into the proper context. When a punch is flying at your face, sometimes merely blocking it isn't enough - occasionally, you just need to fight back. In the high-born, lowbrow world outlined by Manocherian's flimsy treatise on personal envy, class exploitation, and the evils of the almighty dollar, to offend or to be offended is the first order of life.

Yet despite indicting racists, classists, ageists, the old, the young, the attractive, the ugly, the married, and the single, Guilty inflicts no noticeable impact on the stiff-upper-lip navel-gazing that unites them all. Instead, it merely lets loose its sniveling sextet to demonstrate the dangers of taking or offering anything - be it money, love, or someone's word - at face value.

Adam (Darnell Williams) is a moderately successful black man whose white wife Dori (Glory Gallo) has transferred her interest in sex to the revivification of her photography career. White, guitar-playing money maven Jake (Ned Massey) is married to blonde bombshell Laura (Heather Kenzie) who can't conceive a child he so desperately wants. Marcie (Mary Ann Conk) is still reeling from divorcing her white-collar criminal of a husband, who nonetheless has maintained a firm bond with their teenage daughter Lindsey (Tracee Chimo).

Manocherian ignites all this with a few crises, of the early- and midlife variety: hard-working Jake resents trust-fund baby Dori, Laura isn't satisifed by her nearly flawless body and poses for an eagerly snapping Dori to prove it, and Lindsey is suicidal. She even throws in a few allusions to women's body image issues, adult men's lusting for nubile young women, and a case or two of closeted homosexuality that round out the running time but don't enrich the texture of what's at best a blurrily focused evening. As was the case with Cell's January outing Blackout, Guilty wants to investigate the behavior of people at their worst and what that means for the greater culture of America. And like that earlier play, it fails in large part because it's trying to do too much, too abrasively.

The simple honesty of ordinary interactions in the face of extraordinary circumstances is where some of the greatest drama is found. But while there's no shortage here of blistering battles between characters about subjects ranging from economics to vanity, these lead to no discernible conclusions - only more confusions. One interminable scene, in which Dori masturbates away the remnants of her fading womanhood while lying in a darkroom, is a particularly bizarre denunciation of the enforcement of femininity that's one of the play's minor themes. It, like so many of Manocherian's other ideas, never goes anywhere.

Simring's staging is not especially inventive, but its fractured look and now-frantic-now-lethargic pacing seems right for Manocherian's stream-of-conscientiousness writing. The performances approximate caring human beings to about the extent the script does, with Chimo bringing a vague vacant sense to Lindsey, Williams supply some brusque charm, and Conk coasting by with pointed line readings more than a little reminiscent of Joy Behar. It's never clear, though, that the characters demand these kind of portrayals.

What they do need, and what they don't receive, are sparks of humanity that will identify them as people coping with difficult problems in an even more difficult world, rather than sounding boards for specific arguments about the various ways we shouldn't live now. Perhaps some worthwhile arguments are buried within all this, but even the forcefulness with which Manocherian presents them will barely prove enough to keep the jury from falling asleep.


Guilty
Through July 29
Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticket Central