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Theatre in Review: Promising (InProximity Theatre Company/Theatre Row)

Kim Wong, Zachary Clark. Photo: Michael Cinquino

Promising isn't; Michelle Elliot's new play takes what should be a sure-fire dramatic situation -- a New York city political sex scandal -- and fritters it away in an endless series of conversation. We are in the luxury apartment of David Carver, who is running for his second city council term. David is handsome, charismatic, another John Lindsay in the making; unfortunately, he has gathered his team to deal with a big problem. As he puts it, "If I had known I would be having people over to help me deal with a sexual assault charge, I would have gotten a cheese tray."

With David are Verity Jones, his campaign manager, and Shed Walker, his best friend and speechwriter. Considering the incendiary charge, there is a striking lack of tension in the room. While Shed is crafting the kind of bland denial used on such occasions, Verity insists that they are not in trouble. "You're a Democrat representing the West Side of Manhattan," she says. "I think you'd have to publicly drown a sack of puppies to lose."

The first surprise comes with the appearance of Gemma, David's Chinese half-sister, who has run away from Stanford to hole up in her brother's apartment. (There's a complicated back story to explain why the WASPy David has an Asian sibling, but, really, it's not worth going into, and it's unclear what this particular family arrangement adds to the play.) Gemma is a handful, a baleful Goth adolescent whose course of study has to do with man's impact on the planet; her research has led her to conclude that mankind is on the way out, pronto. (Among other things, she believes that eating quinoa is socially irresponsible, for reasons that are guaranteed to make your eyes cross.) Also, when she learns of the charges against David, she says, "Basically, every third girl in my dorm is on the spectrum." Shed, confused, asks, "A third of the girls at Stanford have autism?" "The rape spectrum," replies Gemma in her distinctively steely fashion.

The second surprise comes when Verity -- what a name for a professional politician! -- digs up some dirt on David's accuser, namely that she had an abortion a few months earlier. Verity is eager to tarnish the young lady in the press, but David declines, partly because Gemma is outraged. The third, and nastiest, surprise comes when the information leaks out anyway, with dire consequences, and suddenly everyone must choose between damage control and acting ethically.

There's a not uninteresting idea here -- that, when the storm begins, the politician's entourage have as many moral dilemmas as the man accused -- but too much time is wasted on tedious romantic matters. Verity is in love with David, a situation that gets hashed out at length, and which has the unfortunate effect of reducing her to the cliché of brassy career girl who longs for the man she can't have. Shed and Gemma start canoodling in the living room: We are asked to believe that a theory-ridden 20-year-old, with a gimlet eye for predatory men, would start necking with a male twice her age.

As the examples above indicate, the dialogue aims in the general direction of wit but too often lands in another, possibly adjoining, area. There's a labored passage in which Verity, having confused Gemma for a Chinese food delivery person, lamely keeps trying to prove that she isn't racist. Shed, trying to impress Gemma, says, "I'm moving to Norway, getting a fixed-gear bike, going totally vegan, all raw diet. I'll live off the land and burn peat moss and reindeer dung to stay warm." Gemma notes, "I have an inoperable ecological cancer and thirteen years to live." (A few minutes later, she is dancing around the room with Shed.) Gemma, responding to Verity's multi-year plan for David, says, "In this scenario in which my brother is president, where are you? Oval Office or Lincoln Bedroom?" Verity replies, "Do I have to choose?" "That's so gross," snaps Gemma. You'd think with a looming scandal about to invade the 24-hour-a-day news cycle, there'd be a bigger sense of urgency, but the people in Promising can go on like this all day.

Although the other characters talk themselves silly, David remains a cipher throughout, because the plot turns on the question of his innocence and the playwright doesn't want to give anything away. Once we find out, he remains a blank, which makes it even more difficult for us to understand Verity and Shed, each of whom loves David with a selflessness that borders on the pathetic. When the identity of the leaker of the abortion story is unmasked, it is barely credible, as are that person's motivations.

Indeed, the most promising things in Promising are the actors, each of whom handles an unwieldy role with uncommon grace. Jake Robards lends David a weary quality that seems apt for a politician who can't really stand the demands of his profession; if at times the character seems to be barely there, it isn't his fault. As Verity, Jolie Curtsinger's delivery is so assured that it would be interesting to see what she could do with a really snappy wisecrack. Zachary Clark's Shed is a charming middle-aged boy of 40, and his courting of Gemma is surprisingly not creepy; he can't do much about the final scenes, when he starts delivering advanced-degree moral lectures, but then I doubt anyone could. The role of Gemma is fairly charm-free, but Kim Wong does give her a certain vulnerability, which helps.

James J. Fenton's 40th-floor apartment set, with its gray and navy-blue sandstone interior is a fine example of minimalist chic, but the script calls for a glass box without curtains, which is important for a scene in which a news helicopter flies by, hoping to catch David in an unguarded moment; instead, the set has a dark, heavy, mortuary quality, with no hint of the outside world; this is one case where projections might have helped. Teresa Snider-Stein's costumes, Paul Miller and Kirk Fitzgerald's lighting, and Scott Stauffer's sound are totally professional.

For a drama built on such incendiary materials, Promising has a surprisingly high boiling point. Even in the climactic scenes, in which everyone tries to address an increasingly uncertain future, all one can think is: These people sure can talk. -- David Barbour

(20 November 2015)

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