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Never Tell

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

For those who believe that a major part of adult life is about learning whom to trust and whom not to trust, Never Tell at the Access Theater is for you. James Christy, Jr.'s play explores the necessity and potential heartbreak of trusting others, and while it presents some provocative ideas, if you trust in Christy to provide a thoroughly rewarding dramatic experience, you might find that trust misplaced.

Set in the hip, exciting world of present-day New York and featuring a cast of attractive, energetic young actors, Never Tell plays like a two-part episode of a young-adult-oriented television show. With plenty of frank talk (and secret-keeping) about love and sex, lengthy meditations upon the interpretation of art, and only enough details around the edges to suggest a world outside the characters' limited fields of vision, Christy has every base covered.

It helps that his writing, in terms of color and complexity, is a step or two above that on such TV shows. What also helps is the direction, by James Christy, Sr., the playwright's father. If the material often seems to resist theatricality, the direction just about always manages to keep it in line; director Christy presents playwright Christy's work in a fast-paced, exciting way that almost makes you overlook the familiar nature of the story the play tells.

That story centers on two longtime friends, Manny (Justin Swain) and Will (Kevin Kane), each of whom is on the verge of a major achievement: Manny has developed a computer program with the potential to collect and link not only sets of otherwise unrelated data but that also might allow humans to better communicate what cannot be spoken aloud; Will is about to open at his art gallery a controversial installation featuring video of a young woman raped on camera.

Both men are also troubled in their personal lives, and this begins to affect their professional pursuits. Manny's unrequited love for Liz (Courtney Munch), from whom he painfully separated eight years ago, has turned him into an emotional wreck, and Will's marriage to Anne (Michelle Maxson) is strained by Will's devotion to the art installation and the uproar surrounding it. If you're guessing that the connections between these four will eventually approach soap-opera (if not melodrama) proportions in their various intricacies, you're right.

While the story plays out in fairly predictable ways - I'll bet you can't guess what happens to Manny's program or who the rapist is! - it's given a much-needed shot in the arm by the presence of a fifth major character, identified in the program as Hoover (played by Josh Weinstein). He has odd connections with everyone: he works with Manny, runs into Anne at a party, has a spiritual bond with Liz, and so forth. He's certainly the most theatrical character, the one around whom the rest of the play's events revolve, for one reason or another.

But who is he really? No question in Never Tell is more tantalizing. Hoover is certainly a device, the only character capable of seeing the world as it actually is and the only one able to help others do the same. But whether Hoover is real, a symbolic construct used to push the story along, or aspects of another character's personality given human form is left up to the viewer to determine; there's enough evidence to support any of these ideas. Weinstein plays him as an enigma you can't wait to unravel, only adding to Hoover's appeal and effectiveness.

No one else creates a character as compelling, but no other character is written with as much depth. Swain, in particular, never makes Manny's philosophical and spiritual journeys believable, though the cumbersome pronouncements he must make on the nature of his work and its cosmic implications would make the role a challenge for anyone. Maxson has an appealing Helen Hunt-like quality that makes Anne an intriguing tortured Everywoman, while Munch successfully wraps Liz's pained soul in a striking tissue-paper fašade. Kane and Brian Whelehan, who plays two of Manny's other coworkers, are both fine.

Aside from Hoover, the most interesting work done in the show is that of the two Christys, who seem to be natural collaborators. They do all their strongest work when they focus on the characters' interactions with each other; their attempts to make realistic the more unbelievable aspects of the plot are much less effective. Less ornate plot elements would allow the characters to convey even more of the story.

That's unsurprising: In Never Tell, as in most plays - if not most TV shows - the characters are really what matters. How they believe in, don't believe in, and eventually violate or reinforce each other is always going to prove more interesting than the specific things they're all talking - and lying - about.

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New York International Fringe Festival
Never Tell
Extended through August 31
Running Time: 2 hours, with one 10-minute intermission
Access Theatre, 380 Broadway, 4th floor
Schedule and Tickets: 212.279.4488