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Theatre in Review: Crude (Black Lab Theatre/Ars Nova)

Nico Tortorella. Photo: Jenny Anderson

According to the program for Crude, it is one in an "energy series" of plays by Jordan Jaffe, each of which is designed to highlight a particular energy source. (He has also written plays about natural gas and wind.) I fear that if Crude is any indication, he isn't doing much for the environmental cause; so blatant are his tactics that his play ends up a sermon aimed straight at the already converted. Rarely have the dramatic possibilities of a catastrophic situation been mined to so little effect.

We are in the Houston home of Jaime and Brittany. Once a fledgling documentary filmmaker, Jaime now works for Kurtz Petroleum, his family's oil company, turning out oleaginous promotional videos designed to make the firm sound like a convocation of the selfless, devoted entirely to the improvement of the environment. ("Because we don't just come up with solutions: We implement them," murmurs the narrator.) In one of those borrowed-from-the-sitcoms setups, Brittany is the director of the Wetlands in Texas Foundation. (He's carbon! She's green!) It appears that part of her job description involves lecturing her husband about every single thing he does. She all but shudders in horror when he picks up a bottle of water and when he suggests flying, on the company plane, to Taos for the weekend; she says, brightly, in the voice of a mother locking away the cookie jar, "I don't think we can fit jet fuel into our carbon footprint goal for the week." In short, this pair is on the fast track to divorce court, and, given Brittany's schoolmarm behavior, one imagines it can't happen soon enough. Then a news broadcast announces that an offshore platform owned by Kurtz Petroleum has suffered a blowout, and tens of thousands of gallons of oil are pouring into the Gulf of Mexico. Can this marriage be saved?

The play shifts when Brittany takes a powder, running off to her foundation to arrange a crisis response, taking with her the aging, incontinent hound that Jaime appears to love better than any human being. Enter Aaron, Jamie's college buddy and colleague at Kurtz Petroleum, with a plan for them to craft a public relations response to the disaster, thereby saving the company from disaster. But first they smoke some dope, and then out comes the cocaine. I believe this is the first play I've seen in which the characters dab their index fingers with coke, then jab themselves in their rear ends. (Maybe I lead a sheltered life.) In any case, the script notes that there is more than one meaning to the word "crude," and I can testify that Jaffe has got them all covered; the longest stretch of the play involves Jaime and Aaron's frat boy antics.

The drug use is important, because it cues the third character, Manny, Aaron's dealer, who shows up and is hired by Jaime to abduct the dog and return it to him. Manny exists in Crude to deliver a Big Speech, lecturing Jaime about his corrupt ways, "I'm just trying to open your eyes and see what you and I do are the same thing," he says. "Drugs fuck your brain, but I sell them to make money, and at the end of the day, I'm not the one butt-ramming your brain, the drugs are. Oil fucks the earth, but you sell that shit and make money, and, at the end of the day, you're not fucking the earth in the butt, the oil is."

Jaime doesn't really appreciate this analogy, but, in any case, he and Aaron craft a stunningly ingenuous plan for a feel-good video designed to wipe away viewers' memories of oil-covered beaches and poisoned fish and wildlife. They present it to Jaime's unseen father, although Jaime is still so coked-up, he can barely get through it. Meanwhile, Brittany comes and goes, begging Jaime to prevent his father from using Corexit, an oil dispersant that is a case of the cure being worse than the disease. By this time, the audience is collectively thinking, Fat chance, Brittany. Anyway, her disappointment in this matter allows her to return and say, "KP has poisoned your soul, Jaime. You are toxic. Toxic." Yep; just like that oil spill.

So many lectures, so little illumination; one leaves Crude having been told (1) oil spills are disastrous for the environment, (2) oil companies are often irresponsible and manipulative, and (3) carbon-based energy is bad. This less-than-front-page news is so feebly dramatized that the lectures are all one remembers later on.

The director, Kel Haney, struggles to get much of anything out of this and his cast seems equally lumbered. Nico Tortorella captures Jaime's forever-immature soul, but it's impossible to believe that he once made a fine documentary about a toxic chemical substance used in everyday products. Eliza Huberth overplays Brittany's domineering qualities, largely, I think, because she has little else to play. W. Tré Davis is convincing as Aaron (and even amusing when explaining the virtues of the "Eye Ching") and Jose Joaquin Perez makes the most of the smaller role of Manny. The production design is professional, if not especially interesting: Caite Hevner's living room set doesn't really suggest Jaime and Brittany's presumed income level (often a problem with low-budget productions), but Sydney Maresca's character-specific costumes, Alex Jainchill's lighting, and Elisheba Ittoop's sound design all get the job done.

It's not fun to find fault with a play that has its heart in the right place, but the title also applies to its dramaturgy. It's hard to get caught up in the story when the gears keep shifting so loudly. -- David Barbour

(6 May 2016)

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