Deception has long been essentially a guaranteed route to juicy suspense in written works. If Secrets, which just opened at the Theatre at St. Luke's, defies no other expectations, it certainly smashes this one to bits. Though each character in Gerald Zipper's new play hides anything and everything from everyone else, the effect created doesn't approximate a rolling boil of exploding tensions as much as it does water evaporating.
Zipper's apparent idea is that the explosion of therapy as self-help in the sexually and socially turbulent New York of the 1980s is the perfect backdrop for examining how the unspoken can both build and destroy lives. So he's populated a swank Upper West Side apartment (the design of Zen Mansley) with two thirtysomething couples and one fortysomething couple to see what happens during an evening in which painful truths are revealed with the ferocity of a machine gun emptying a full belt.
But for that you would need to care about those revelations, which would require you care about the people making them. Instead, we barely even get to know these people before they're suddenly, and arbitrarily, at each other's throats.
Oh, there's some lip service paid to the television clown job that frustrated actor-producer Hank (Mark Hamlet) hates, the oily way that Matt (Tom Sminkey) inserts himself into every conversation, or the saliva-drenched dissatisfaction that Matt's wife Rhonda (Alyce Mayors) has for everything. But the details are ultimately unimportant: We're really just supposed to accept these six people - the others are Hank's wife, Dora (Lissa Moira), and Len and Lally (Darren Lougée and Elena Zazanis) - as friends, then sit back and watch them prove they're not.
But because they have nothing to talk about, their endless turning on each other has no real meaning. Every surprising fact, every devastating admission springs fully formed from Zipper's mind, not from the hearts of the characters, which makes it impossible for real drama to ever develop. So ineffectual is Zipper's every attempt to generate intrigue that even before the first act concludes, the evening more resembles the flimsy, fictional basis for a drinking game than a play: "Whenever a woman acts huffy about not knowing something, down a shot. Whenever a man remarks on the explosive nature of something he's hiding, chug from the bottle!"
So it continues for 90 baffling minutes, until they all tire of the shenanigans and just stop talking. To get there, though, they (and we) must wade through every hoary cliché, from drunken outbursts and tear-stained anguished confessions to a climactic parlor game in which everyone must in turn admit the most shameful thing they've ever done. So many well-trod tropes are appropriated that at times Secrets seems intended not as an indictment of therapy as the road to happiness, but as a satirical comment on blood-stained domestic tragedies like those written by Edward Albee.
If that's the case, Secrets is utterly unflinching in its approach - nary a seam can be found. That does not, however, excuse Ted Mornel's direction, which is the theatrical equivalent of throwing one's hands up in the air. Nor does it absolve the acting, which so matches the writing in frustrating generalities that even the two performers who are married offstage, Sminkey and Mayors, have no chemistry as a stage couple. Only Zazanis displays momentary flashes of recognizable life, conveying an uptown sophistication that sets her apart from the masquerade-ball refugees around her. But even she scarcely compels.
For that, you must turn to the fourth couple, Fred and Enny, who unwittingly drive all the play's other non-events. Though they never appear onstage, their absence becomes the impetus for all this unloading of shredded emotional baggage. Chances are, they couldn't accomplish nearly as much were they actually in the play, which makes them the only things in Secrets you're glad are discussed rather than seen.