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Theatre in Review: Asymmetric (Ground Up Productions/59E59)

Seth Shelden, Sean Williams. Photo: Travis McHale

The term "too clever by half" could have been coined for Asymmetric, a spy drama that stretches one's credulity to the breaking point and keeps going. We are in an undisclosed location belonging to the CIA. Sunny, one of the agency's top operatives, has been accused of stealing the drawings of a new secret weapon, putting them up for sale on the Internet. The investigation is time-sensitive, because if news of her theft gets out it could bring down her entire operation, and her bosses, with her.

Racing to do damage control, Zach, Sunny's superior, brings in Josh, Sunny's former supervisor and ex-husband, to interrogate her. How desperate a move is this? Josh and Sunny parted on the most acrimonious of terms, and, since then, Josh has gotten blind drunk nightly, rendering him all but unemployable. Before Josh can interrogate Sunny, he will have to get her to speak to him first.

Every writer of thrillers is granted one major implausibility, if only to get the plot rolling, and Mac Rogers, the playwright, spends all his credibility on the front end. Josh is a mess - when we first see him, he is in sweatpants and hasn't showered or shaved in days, but the theory is that somehow he can pull it together long enough to crack Sunny's defenses. Still, for the sake of an entertaining evening, we're willing to go along with the idea that the only one standing between the CIA and a massive scandal is a depressive alcoholic with a personal axe to grind.

But Rogers doesn't stop there. There's a confusing, poorly explained setup involving a break-in at Josh's house. The weapon that Sunny allegedly stole is right out of science fiction, a drone that, somebody notes, works like a bloodhound; you put a bit of the DNA of your intended victim on it and it seeks out that person and no other, thereby avoiding those pesky news stories about entire Afghan villages taken out by mistake. Rogers also deals a wild card in the form of Ford, a torture-happy agency employee who keeps horning in on the investigation with a pair of pliers with which to remove one of Sunny's fingers; it's never really clear why Zach can't control him. And, despite the alleged time pressure, there's still plenty of time for Sunny and Josh to hash out their relationship problems.

The plot of Asymmetric might do for a paperback spy caper. (Rogers borrows from the John le Carré playbook, creating a world identified entirely by clever euphemisms; for example, the operation that everyone in the play works for is known as the "fifth floor.") But in the theatre it comes across as a mass of exposition complicated by one mechanical twist after another until it becomes a chore to keep up with whatever lie is currently being told. It would help if the characters had any psychological reality about them, but they are little more than mouthpieces for the tortured plot, spitting out the same style of hard-boiled dialogue.

There's also the issue of tone. Rogers is rightly indignant about the security excesses of the post 9/11 era - which, as Josh notes, shifted the agency's work away from gathering information and toward torture and murder - but Asymmetric is too convoluted and tricked up to be a serious political commentary. At the same time, its solemn sermonizing is a drag. Too contrived to be a serious drama and too solemn to be an entertaining evening of double-crosses, Asymmetric gets hopelessly tangled up in its own contrivances.

A better production might make a stronger case for the play, but the cast often seems as puzzled as we are. Sean Williams looks far too healthy as Josh and he never develops any chemistry with Kate Middleton's Sunny. Seth Shelden works hard at making Zach into a credible bureaucrat, but he seems too young for the part and his performance is awfully fidgety. As Ford, Rob Maitner acts like a refugee from a grindhouse splatter film, popping his eyes, shouting his lines, and grinning like a maniac. Alone among them, Middleton finds a tough, understated style that works for the character.

The production design is notably low-budget, although Travis McHale's set, a black room with photos of President Obama and John Brennan, does open up cleverly for the final scene, which takes place in two locations. His lighting is appropriately stark. Amanda Jenks' costumes and Jeanne Travis' sound are both okay.

Whatever else is wrong with Asymmetric, it remains watchable, if only to see how it turns out. To his credit, Rogers keeps the plot twisting until the last minute. But if the fate of the free world depends on this bunch, we're doomed. - David Barbour

(20 November 2014)

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