Jump Rope, aptly described as "a killer love story," is a new play by Boston playwright John Kuntz. Catch it now at the Playwrights' Theatre on Commonwealth Avenue (at Boston University) before it takes off for New York or Edinburgh or London or wherever else its ambitious producing team sets their sights on.
The production was initiated by Next Stages, a fledgling Boston theatre company launched a few short months ago by Justin Waldman (Nicholas Martin's assistant at the Huntington Theatre) and New York based director Matt August. For this production they've joined forces with veteran New York producer and marketing director Caralyn Spector. The theatre could use a lot more of what this new team has to offer. Besides youth and ambition, they've also got the ability to attract fine acting talent, an eye for production values and a nose for detecting a good play in the making.
The play is labeled "a black comedy," but the effect is more schizophrenic than blended. Act one purports to be a fairly straightforward relationship play about three guys, two who are stuck with each other in a 13-year partnership gone boring, and the third a loser with an unbroken string of bad dates. News reports of a serial killer with a taste for gay, white males only sets us to wondering which of these unlikely candidates he'll turn out to be.
There are several other setups that also scream for payoff: a white futon with a prophylactic plastic slipcover, a wedding dress hanging on the wall and the jump ropes of the title that look to be potentially lethal in the hands of the right martial arts expert. All I'm willing to reveal about the fruition of all this is that the audience members sitting in front of me who left at intermission would describe an entirely different play than the one this turned out to be.
I can sympathize with their discontent. Much of act one, particularly the opening, relies too heavily on quick cross cutting (more effective in film) and very short scenes (the bane of TV sitcoms). Act one can also be faulted for leading us pretty far down some false garden paths. After a lot of deep background, much of it delivered in direct address, the point seems to be that these guys are just as miserable and whiny as the next person. Bill Mootos plays the handsome, sensitive one, so nice you want someone to pinch him to see if he's real. His partner (Benjamin Evett) is such damaged goods and so inarticulate he needs to be slapped on the back so he'll spit out whatever is caught in his throat. And Brooks Ashmanskas seems to be around solely to deliver self-deprecating comic interludes about the flip side of being in a relationship, i.e., not being in one.
Once we're off and running in act two, however, the play takes a sharp turn for the better. When all three characters finally begin to interact with each other, the complexity of what playwright Kuntz writes is delightful. And coupled with the slick execution by director August and company, it would be enough to send Stephan Sondheim running to his piano (or yellow legal pad, as it were) in glee to musicalize it.
When all is said and done, though, the logic of the story seems slightly off in terms of what each character knew when and the order in which events actually took place. Most of the setups do pay off, but the plastic slipcover is hardly worth the trouble it gives the actors trying to get a fitted sheet to stay on.
By the end I had a nagging feeling that unreliable narrators at some point had tricked me, but if dragged in for questioning, its possible I'd prove to be an equally unreliable witness. My suggestion: go check it out for yourself.
Jump Rope is at Boston Playwrights Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue (at Boston University), now through August 18th. Performances are Wednesdays through Sundays at 8pm and seating is general admission. Tickets are priced at $20, $15 for seniors. A $10 student rush is available one hour before curtain. For reservations call 617-499-7785.