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stage dive

Theater Review: An Over-the-Top High

Evan Jonigkeit and Kathleen Turner in High.

Saints be glazed, there’s a miracle on 45th Street, and lo, it is High: In a penguin-infested season that includes the likes of Sister Act and Charles Busch’s The Divine Sister, this intervention melodrama manages to establish itself as far and away the campiest panoply of nunsense now onstage. That burlesque isn’t the intention here — the play is deadly serious, I’m afraid — only aids its ascent to the heights of hilarity. At the epicenter is Kathleen Turner, who plays a foul-mouthed, tough-love ex-boozer of an addiction counselor named Sister Jamison Connelly. (Apparently “Sister Whiskey O’McIrishdrunk” was already registered with Nuns Equity.) Turner — with her Rooster Cogburn diction and auric Queen of Sheba corona (which radiates even through her boxy-clinical casual conventwear) — is a creature so majestically at home on her own planet of solid irony, it’s almost impossible to cram her in a naturalistic didacto-rama without setting off giggles; only the deftest of hands could pull off such a delicate bomb-defusing operation.

Playwright Matthew Lombardo (Looped), alas, is not that hand. A recovering addict himself (as revealed in press notes that feel more candid than anything onstage), Lombardo is clearly too close to his subject matter to deliver anything other than a hand-on-heart affirmation or a stops-out passion play. He opts for the latter, and we’re treated to the most indelibly misconceived drug-spazzer since Helen Hunt’s immortal freakout in Desperate Lives.

I’m sorry to inform you that Turner’s character doesn’t do the bad-trip limbo here; her days of altered states are behind her yet (naturally) always with her, and that honor falls to her charge, Cody (Evan Jonigkeit), a strung-out teenage hustler with, you guessed it, an excruciating secret. Jonigkeit appears to have studied some old Sweathog audition tapes to assemble his 4-D portrait of a young, urban lost cause. (The fourth dimension, in case you’re wondering, is Overacting — and overacting on what I believe to be a subcellular level. Further tests must be run. At one point, I’m fairly sure I heard Jonigkeit’s actual DNA screamily emoting at me.) All cheap shots aside, I think Jonigkeit is onto something: Lombardo’s script leaves him no choice but a histrionic O.D. This is a play that delivers the shopworn scorpion-and-the-frog parable as if it were brand-spankin’-new, a play that guilelessly deploys lines like “I need to believe that people can and do change” and “Getting sober has always been the easy part for me; it’s staying sober ... ” without any acknowledgment that these are the PSA stations of the cross, not spotlight dialogue moments. (Director Rob Ruggiero was either asleep at the wheel or blissfully unaware of four decades of accumulated get-clean cliché.) Lombardo gets his mordant laughs on his way down to hell — his banter reflexes are as sharp as anything the Golden Girls ever dished out — but as the show’s bathos emissions rise and rise to thyroid-killing levels, I couldn’t help but wonder: If this play had been written by a straight suburban Evangelical instead of a gay urban Catholic, and starred Kirk Cameron instead of Kathleen Turner, would it be opening anywhere near the Great White Way? No: It would be safely confined to a church basement or the airtight sanctuary of some mega-tabernacle. Which is where High, minus a few dozen of Turner’s f-bombs and all references to sodomy, might be heading soon, too, and maybe where it was meant to be all along.

Photo: Joan Marcus