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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Sutton Foster and Zach Braff.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

When a play's first scene is set in a dominatrix's torture dungeon, complete with shackles hanging from the flies and a wheeled cart piled with assorted handcuffs and nipple clamps, if you don't get immediate entertainment you're in for a very long evening. Thankfully, with his new play Trust at Second Stage, playwright Paul Weitz and his director Peter DuBois don't just understand that, they play it to the hilt. By outfitting dominant Sutton Foster in a jet-black bobbed wig (that ruefully mimics her hair design from Thoroughly Modern Millie) and skin-tight pleather skirt and thigh-high boots, and setting her against Zach Braff as a milquetoast submissive, Weitz and DuBois have happened upon a foolproof recipe for heat and comedy that, throughout that first scene at least, crackles like mad.

It turns out that Harry (Braff) is a multi-multi-millionaire who wants to be a lot more daring than he is. He's willing to lick her boot, all the way up to the top, and be pushed around with a riding crop, but those shackles are where he draws the line. (He yelps their mutually agreed safe word the instant they lock into place.) Braff, adopting a neurotic guy-next-door mien similar to (but less goofy than) his J.D. on the long-running NBC sitcom Scrubs, mines copious amounts of nervous attraction from the situation that threatens Harry's carefully constructed sense of self-worth. Foster, meanwhile, looking far sturdier and more solemn than in her acclaimed musical performances, is a wall of frozen sex, so enticing yet blazingly unerotic that you can understand why sparks immediately fly between the two, and their cat-and-dead-mouse games sparkle with possibility.

It's hardly surprising that neither is exactly what outward appearances suggest, as they discover on an impromptu date following their session. What does startle and delight is that Weitz maintains a rich sense of tantalizing mystery between the two. His previous Second Stage plays, Privilege and Show People, had trouble sustaining their discussions of classism and role-playing over a full evening. But here Weitz knows exactly who Harry and Prudence are, and what they want (and don't want) from each other. So every scene in which they directly pursue it becomes a blithe and engaging exploration of the good and bad sides of security, expectation and, yes, trust—for both Harry and Prudence have plenty to lie about.

Ari Graynor, Zach Braff, and Bobby Cannavale.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

When Weitz drifts, however, the play runs into problems that even Braff and Foster's gripping chemistry can't solve. Harry's wife, Aleeza (Ari Graynor), and Prudence's boyfriend, Morton (Bobby Cannavale), are drawn in exactly the caricaturish strokes you anticipate from Harry and Prudence but never get. Whereas Weitz has gone to extravagant lengths to position those two characters outside the realm of cliché (and DuBois, Braff, and Foster to ensure they're acted accordingly), he's settled in a much easier and more comfortable rut for these two. Aleeza is a painter who will neither paint nor have sex with her husband, and Morton is a bloated-vocabulary brute (but, he boasts, spectacular in bed) who isn't above blackmailing Harry and his charitable foundation out of $30,000 because he feels society owes him the money.

It's through no fault of Graynor and Cannavale that neither character ever registers as real: Aleeza and Morton are strictly catalysts that let Harry and Prudence's story develop. But as events unfold, they take on much greater significance, getting pulled into defining who and why Harry and Prudence are—and that's a burden far too heavy for either to bear. You never believe, as Weitz insists you to, that Morton is an insecure schlub trapped in a gym-toned, confident body, and that Aleeza sees herself as the victim of Harry's sudden success and blames him for everything that's wrong in her life; thus you never believe the cascade of statements and events that result from these assumptions. The landscape of the play is too narrow and the running time (well under two hours, with an intermission) too short for these valid ideas to get the airing and excavation they require to have a serious impact.

These leaps of logic torpedo the second act, and then the play, when the relationships once again revolve into new positions that reveal realities we didn't know we didn't know. None of it detracts from Braff and Foster, who are boiling hot as these reluctant lovers, and inject far more subtlety and shading into their portrayals than either has demonstrated in other work. Watching Foster gently crack Prudence's fatalistic façade and discover a sense of unwelcome warmth beneath is a true pleasure, and experiencing Braff's investigation of the myriad facets of Harry's personality makes for a perfect intellectual complement to Foster's more open emotionalism. You see all sides of both of them, and understand why they work together—and, on key occasions, why they don't.

So compelling are the two of them that, despite the play's other deficiencies, you're riveted to them until the last seconds they appear onstage. At no time do Braff and Foster ever disappoint or let their energy flag, but however invigorating their pairing is, it can't deliver on the full promise of the playwright's unrealized intentions. Weitz wants to go much further than he's written room for, and his constant attempts to push the action in the desired direction ensure that too much of Trust ultimately remains rooted in place.

Through September 12
Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street at 8th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Second Stage Theatre

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