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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Brian Hutchison, Ansel Elgort, Richard Topol, and Lucas Caleb Rooney
Photo by Carol Rosegg

There are six good plays within Regrets, the new drama by British playwright Matt Charman that just opened at City Center in a Manhattan Theatre Club production. The problem with the show, however, is that not one ever reaches the surface.

Each of those plays corresponds, not so coincidentally, to one of the major characters in this mid-20th-century look at camaraderie and conviction under fire. All of them occupy some crucial space on a Nevada divorce ranch in 1954, where men looking to end their marriages can arrange to spend six weeks in exchange for legal authorization to walk away from his wife. First up is Mrs. Duke (Adriane Lenox), the black woman who manages the ranch, even though there's some real question as to how she attained that power. Then there are the men themselves: Ben (Brian Hutchison), the longest-serving resident and the de facto leader; Gerald (Lucas Caleb Rooney), a former military man; Alvin (Richard Topol), who's pure nerdy milquetoast; and Caleb (Ansel Elgort), the newest arrival, so innocent and unspoiled of look that he barely seems of marrying age in the first place. Last but not least is Chrissie (Alexis Bledel), a young "working girl" from town who knows the ranch is the best place to find clientele (and a means of escape from her abusive father).

There's a lot of nascent heat here, and it's fanned in the opening scene that finds Mrs. Duke introducing Caleb to his new surroundings and neighbors. (The set has been designed with simple frontier flair by Rachel Hauck, the warm and dusty lighting by Ben Stanton, and the straightforward costumes by Ilona Somogyi.) The boy is nice but unprepared for everything he experiences, whether living alone or facing down questioning from Ben, who can seemingly tell everything about a man from a single handshake. Caleb is not forthcoming about his past or the woman he's left behind, something that rankles Ben, who has plenty of his own secrets. Yet somehow they all manage to bond: over outdoor-cooked dinners, late-night card games, and a shared appreciation for Chrissie, though she only has eyes for Ben and only Gerald shows more than a skin-deep affection in her.

Charman sets up, and director Carolyn Cantor carries through those opening scenes, the notion that the play will be about shifting definitions of marriage, manhood, and race in post–World War II America, and the characters remain sufficiently varied constructs that forward this goal. The interactions between the men, all of whom display very different relationships with love (Gerald gets there through physical intimacy, Alvin remains passionately devoted to his disinterested wife, and so on), fuels a fine—if seldom dazzling—first act that suggests big fireworks and bigger changes to come post-intermission. What we get instead at the end of the first act is the arrival of a mysterious agent (Curt Bouril), who's determined to bring one of the men to justice (or at least to light) on behalf of the government, a development that bleeds through until the final scene.

In doing so, it obliterates our ability to see these interesting folks live up to their potential, or even fill out the boundaries Charman spends his opening scenes establishing. Once the only questions under consideration are "What impact will this plot device have on one man's life?" and "How will the others react to it?", Regrets becomes annoyingly formulaic and painfully preachy, never settling for an original thought where a cliché will do. The ending in particular, which Charman apparently intended as a triumph over faceless adversity, strains so hard for profundity given what precedes it that it's almost comic. But the abandonment of so many hinted-at avenues for true, serious engagement—with Chrissie and Mrs. Duke the most tantalizing possibilities—makes this late-show about-face anything but a laughing matter.

With the exception of Elgort, who reads as little more than hollow because he doesn't bring enough emotional shading to compensate for his underwritten role, the actors satisfactorily meet their challenges early on. Hutchison projects an absolute but uneasy authority that instantly brands him as the mayor of this community; and though Rooney is hampered a bit by Gerald's standard-issue redneck treatment, he locks into the man's blood-level drives for drinking and romance in believable ways. Topol overplays Alvin's societal aversion but displays real heart, as does Bledel in a role that could too easily become a cloying device rather than the real, aching woman this actress lets her be. Lenox smoothly blends Mrs. Duke's caring and comedy into a single smoky personality you'd really like to get to know better.

Of course, that's true of everyone here. They obviously have rich stories to tell and convincing reasons to tell them—they're just not given a chance. Charman's decision to make a sharp left turn toward the political, and the well-trod (let's just say the secrets do not exactly make headlines in this country) would only work if he didn't get to his final destination by abandoning the people he's so lovingly created. He gives no reason why they can't move intact in this new direction, they merely don't. That ensures that Regrets ends up inspiring as many regrets about its lost opportunities as its earliest scenes do hopes for the promise of what's to come.

Through April 29
New York City Center —Stage I, 131 West 55th Street
Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes, with one intermission
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