How often does a play pretend to deal with earthly concerns, like adultery and intellectual property theft, and then demand you reconsider human nature? James Christy's Never Tell, which plays those kinds of theatrical games and others, is nothing if not unpredictable. But in the Broken Watch Theatre Company's new production at the Michael Weller Theatre, that's not always a good thing.
This play is ideally suited to the young company, which delights in presenting plays that depict real life with just a few gears misaligned. Such is the world Christy has created, in which technology, sex, and self-image are indistinguishable, all viable methods for losing track of who we really are. When it comes right down to it, Christy argues, you can't unquestioningly put your faith in anyone or anything - including yourself.
When I first saw Never Tell at the 2004 Fringe Festival, it struck me as a fascinating, if shallow, deconstruction of trust and self-image, with a dark streak that gave it potential for emotional potency that hadn't yet been fully realized. This production, however, directed by Drew DeCorleto, leaves no raw emotion untapped, and makes a strong case for the play as an allegorical look at the perils of an overwrought, overtechnical, overanalyzed world.
So you strongly feel the achievement of research analyst Manny (Jason Schuchman), who has devised a system to tabulate all variables of human personality into a new communication-database system. You also sense the tension created between Manny's married friends Will and Anne (Matthew Wilkas and Teresa L. Goding) over the controversial art exhibit (depicting a live rape) Will is curating. And you can understand the psychological torment afflicting Manny's one-time flame and friend Liz (Eva Kaminsky), who's having trouble finding her footing after a long absence from her friends.
But what's missing this time around is the horror-drenched doubt that must accompany the characters' descents into the unknown. As addressed here, Manny's crippling paranoia, Will's dangerous sexual appetites affecting every woman in the play, and Liz's violent instability are afterthoughts, subordinate to making the play an appealingly off-center look at a world so silicon-dependent that compassion and joy are rare commodities. This makes the play feel like a light comedy with serious overtones (in particular, the scenes at Manny's office suggest a mass-produced NBC workplace sitcom), not a refuge for the lonely from a paralyzingly uncertain outside.
Without that threatening atmosphere, the play too often feels like a collegiate meditation on the nature of identity, rather than a serious, psychosexual character study. Even the sets (J. Wiese) and lights (Dusty Ray) are borderline cartoony; the accompanying video, which should be a crucial mood-setter, is the simplistic, merely decorative work of Jito Lee. Only Drew Sarich's original alternative-angst rock songs capture the proper mood, creating an appropriately chaotic soundtrack for these lives in flux.
Even the performances seem intentionally defanged, seldom rising above the attractive, the efficient, and the bland. Some are more focused than others (Kaminsky's blend of disarray with sly sophistication takes the scattered Liz in the right direction); others are too diffuse to be effective (Schuchman plays Manny as so irredeemably nebbishy it's hard to believe he'd ever have friends, let alone a girlfriend); and one is a total misfire (Michael Blum's profoundly geeky tech-support guru is pure caricature).
The last and perhaps most important character, however, emerges unscathed by standing outside all this. That's Hoover (Mark Setlock), ostensibly... well, lots of things: Manny's co-worker, a party crasher who hits on Anne, a would-be relationship therapist (and possible lover) for Liz. When the others reach their lowest and emptiest points, he's always only a few steps away, apparently pulling the strings.
Setlock finds an infectious, sick joy in the head game-playing Hoover, and is equally at home whether playing elegant or down-and-dirty. At the Fringe, I couldn't decide whether Christy intended Hoover as real, or as an imaginary construct representing the unquantifiable obstacles in these characters' lives. While Setlock is an adroit salesman in the role, I remain unconvinced that DeCorleto and Christy have sufficiently elucidated Hoover's purpose.
Yet that enigma is on some level vital as a reminder that our hopes and fears aren't always entirely within our understanding. Setlock, through his smarmy but brightly polished portrayal, vividly evokes the hidden and forbidden aspects of humanity the other characters are trying to escape. They shouldn't be able to, of course, but DeCorleto gives them little other choice.