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NEW YORK — While doing eight performances a week on Broadway in the stirring revival of John Steinbeck‘s Of Mice and Men, the indefatigable James Franco has been juggling a rehearsal schedule for his stage directing debut with the Off-Broadway premiere of prolific novelist Robert Boswell‘s The Long Shrift. Why? That question is never answered during the anesthetizing 95 minutes of this emotionally bogus wannabe Sam Shepard effort, which basically teaches us that all men have the capacity for violence while all women are prone to lapses of hysterical finger-pointing and manipulation.
Franco has recruited actor Scott Haze — his onscreen lead in Child of God, and a castmember of three other films he directed — to play the Damaged & Angry Young Man at the center of this monotonous harangue. But Haze’s line readings and characterization are so thoroughly indebted to his director that the performance borders on imitation. What’s more, the stand-and-deliver approach of Franco’s staging does nothing to alleviate the talky drama’s static nature or disguise its wonky construction.
As the whiff of pulpy hardboiled masculinity in the title suggests, this aims to be a raw drama about protracted punishment with perhaps a perverse glimmer of comfort at the end. But its circuitously overworked dialogue has the literary feel of a stretched-out short story, and while the production is certainly Actor-y, it’s also resolutely untheatrical.
It starts with a sluggish scene between abrasive Sarah (Ally Sheedy, doing her best Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her husband of 23 years, mild-mannered Vietnam vet Henry (Brian Lally, another frequent Franco collaborator). Having lost their family home to legal expenses, they are moving into squat, ugly digs in Houston, close to where their son Richard (Haze) has been incarcerated since he was 18.
That was ten months earlier, but for the sake of exposition, Sarah and Henry are still thrashing over the hows and whys of his sentencing for the rape of the homecoming queen, who was way out of nice, nerdy Richie’s high-school social league. Henry is all about forgiveness and understanding, refusing to question his son’s innocence, while embittered Sarah’s doubts about the male of the species run too deep to allow for trust; she refuses to visit him in prison.
Cut to nine years later. Sarah is out of the picture, at least in flesh-and-blood terms, and Richard has resurfaced four years after getting out, his stay on Dad’s sofa bed coinciding with his ten-year high school reunion. Enter Beth (Ahna O’Reilly), Richie’s accuser, who recanted and went to great personal and financial expense to get him released five years into his sentence. With her own life in ruins, she’s no less stuck than Richard, so she wants to talk it out and find common ground in order to move on. But Richie refuses to listen to her shrink-speak (“I will not be intimidated, I will not be deterred”), barely restraining his hostility toward her from becoming physical.
O’Reilly finds some sympathetic shadings in her maddening character. But with the minor exception of Henry, who’s well-meaning and dull as dishwater, these are unpleasant people to be around. That makes the entry of bubbly Macy (Allie Gallerani), whose calculating naked ambition is matched by her cluelessness, a gulp of fresh air — she’s funny, even if she’s more of a plot trigger than an actual character, and is more or less in a different play. President of the student body, Macy is organizing the reunion for extra credit, and getting a “star” speaker like Richie seems a sure path to success. Wrong.
Lack of economy is a problem throughout The Long Shrift, but nowhere more so than in the staggeringly mishandled reunion scene in which Richard — stripped down to reveal his amateurish neo-Nazi prison tats — confronts his former classmates and teachers with their indifference to his ordeal, while humiliating Beth and poor, dim Macy. The bludgeoning writing is not helped by the fact that Franco stages it like… well, a bad high school play, with the two women standing by helpless, evidently given few clues about how to react.
The labored conclusions that come out of this awkward bout of public flagellation have no resonance because nothing gels, and little about these people or the traumatic situation that has destroyed two families rings true. Only Andromache Chalfant‘s drab set has the air of stifling authenticity.
Cast: Scott Haze, Ahna O’Reilly, Brian Lally, Ally Sheedy, Allie Gallerani
Director: James Franco
Playwright: Robert Boswell
Set designer: Andromache Chalfant
Costume designer: Jessica Pabst
Lighting designer: Burke Brown
Sound designer: Bart Fasbender
Fight direction: UnkleDave’s Fight-House
Presented by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
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Jeriana San Juan