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Theatre in Review: Wide Awake Hearts (Birdland Theatre/59E59)

Tony Naumovski, Bem Cole, Clea Aslip. Photo Carol Rosegg

The film director at the center of Brendan Gall's new play is an uncompromising artist: In pursuit of his muse, he doesn't spare himself, his wife, his leading man -- and certainly not the audience at 59E59. He's making a film that stars his wife and best friend as clandestine lovers. (The characters are all named after single letters -- A, B, C -- an affectation that only Edward Albee can get away with -- so we'll stick with the designations Director, Wife, Friend.) And darn it if the Friend doesn't carry a torch for the Wife, who clearly returns his feelings, marriage to the ice-cold Director having turned out to be something short of paradise. The Director has ensnared them all in this project apparently to keep an eye on them as they cuckold him. Or maybe it's all a sustained exercise in masochism. It's hard to tell. It's ever harder to care.

Wide Awake Hearts has an attention-getting opening monologue in which the Director describes the cutthroat action on a film set -- between a four-year-old child actor and his standby, who is all too ready to replace him: "This back-up today, he spent the whole morning trying to get Kid A to play word games with him between setups. Then I realize: Kid B's running a grift, trying to make him forget his lines! You gotta respect that. I mean that is smart." The deadpan delivery of Ben Cole as the Director -- every syllable is saturated with disbelief at the pointlessness of human endeavor -- is just about ideal, and the first few minutes promise an evening of black-hearted fun with some of show business' worst.

Too soon, however, we're mired in the play's central triangle and the fun takes a hike. At a pre-shoot cocktail get-together, the Friend lets slip that he is being housed by the production at a Super8 motel near the airport. The Wife, shocked by this evident mistreatment of her leading man, demands that he move in with her and the Director. Trying to pretend that it was all a joke, The Director says, "We shoot for a month. You really thought I was going to make you sleep in a Bukowski novel?"

Throwing all three characters together under one roof sets the stage for plenty of brittle dialogue and will-they-or-won't-they speculation, as the Wife and the Friend spend a lot of time, um, rehearsing, the screenplay's many steamy scenes, while the Director looks on. The Director, by the way, has sunk all of his money into the film, which, based on the bits of it that we see, is never going to get out of Sundance alive:

Friend: I love you...And I've never loved anyone...ever....I love you...I'm sorry...I love you...I think it's important that you know that...Because I've never loved anyone but you...I love you...I can't live without you...It's possible I'm a sociopath...I love you...

Wife: I don't even know who you are.

Friend: I'm your guardian angel

Wife: Then where's your halo?

Friend: It gave me a rash. Make love to me...

Meanwhile, the Director has a meltdown during a pitch meeting to network executives, baring his fears about his marriage, then announcing his intention to "write the first television drama in history...with absolutely no conflict." When it looks like things can't possibly get more tortured, he hires a Film Editor who is -- wait for it -- the Friend's sometime girlfriend. (This leads to more banter. She: "I've been trying to call you. Your number's disconnected." He: "They tend to do that when you don't pay your bill." She: "You could have called me." He: "I don't call people when I'm working." She: "Right. Your delicate process.")

The rest of Wide Awake Hearts circles around this quartet, looking for new ways for all to express their misery. The Wife confides to the Film Editor her bad dreams, which involve being clawed to death by a bird and plugging a strange man full of lead. The Director proposes making a film about two people who are so close, "they can sit inside each other's hearts." Lest anyone think he is having a real emotion, he quickly adds, "He's not her true love after all. He's just some asshole who can get inside people's heads." The Friend, back on the set, acts out a lengthy scene in the confessional, which alone is enough to suggest that the film-within-the-play is going to be a leading contender for a Razzie Award. ("I have been young and stupid. I have been old and set in my ways. I have not accepted God into my heart...which makes this whole thing problematic.")

It might be possible to gin up some interest in this romantic quadrangle if Gall were willing to spill the tiniest detail about any of them. It's not just their names that are held back, however; anything resembling a character detail has been scrubbed from the script. Although The Director, Wife, and Friend have a shared past, we never hear a thing about it. The play's B romance, between the Friend and the Film Editor, doesn't even make sense, since the script establishes early on he is a longtime refugee from the film industry; so how did they meet and where have they been seeing each other?

Such choices are strange, because Gall, creator of the hit TV series Blindspot, clearly can write. In addition to that opening monologue, the Film Editor has a lyrical speech describing the role of the editor in assembling a feature film. It's possibly the only five minutes of the play that isn't suffused with a sour undertaste, and is all the better for it; it is beautifully handled by Maren Bush. Her fellow cast members are equally skilled: As mentioned, Cole makes the most of his opportunities, and even in their silly on-camera scenes, Clea Alsip and Tony Naumovski work up a tense, passionate connection.

Konstantin Roth's set is a fair approximation of a movie set filled with softbox lighting units, which act as screens for Rocco DiSanti's projections. These, which tend to feature images of the actors, are well enough done, although they hardly seem necessary. Roth's costumes, Mike Riggs' lighting, and Elliot Davoren's sound design are all solid.

Don't be surprised that Wide Awake Hearts ends with nothing resolved. As the Director notes, "It never goes the way you want, does it? That's the trouble with life; it's got no sense of resolution. Although it does seem to have a pretty good feel for irony." Maybe, but fifteen minutes into the action, I was ready to yell, "Cut!" -- David Barbour

(25 January 2016)

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