For all the glibness of his image-crafting, James Franco appears to be sincere in his regard for actual artistic production. And I say this not just in hopes of avoiding the title of Little Bitch 2. Uptown, in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (which continues through July 27), he offers a serious and accomplished performance as the itinerant farmhand George; is it his fault if he looks hot doing so? Downtown, as the director of a new play called The Long Shrift, he’s likewise humble, the opposite of showboating. Unfortunately, the opposite of showboating, in this case, is sinking.
The play, by Robert Boswell, is halfway capsized to start with, thanks in part to its cargo of lumpy and overweight baggage. I am not referring to the actor Scott Haze, a handsome Franco mini-me (or maxi-me) with a $200 haircut and a gold-plated squint. He plays Richard, a 28-year-old from the wrong side of the tracks whose life was derailed in high school when a classmate, a local Houston princess, accused him of rape. After serving five years in prison, he was sprung when the girl recanted; now, a few years later, he returns to town to appear with her as the entertainment at their tenth high school reunion. That this is phenomenally unlikely does not in itself invalidate it as drama; without the unexpected, where would plays be? But there’s a difference between unexpected and insane, between a playwright’s novelty and desperation. Here, the sudden shift to a quasi-surreal tone has the effect of trashing the quasi-realism that preceded it, along with any investment we may have built up along the way. A play should not be a bum’s rush, with the audience as the bums.
It’s a shame, because The Long Shrift includes flashes, and sometimes entire interchanges, that address novel situations organically. The literal and spiritual cost of the rape accusation on Richard’s parents is intriguingly drawn in an opening scene set while he is still in prison, to which Ally Sheedy, as his mother, brings a kind of corrosive commitment. She cannot completely buy his innocence, while his father cannot afford to question it. Later, some aspects of the confrontation between the semi-penitent accuser and her victim (or is it the other way around?) undermine politically correct expectations in a useful, not gratuitous, way. But Boswell, known mostly for his Western fiction, seems determined to be periodically outré, or perhaps his unfamiliarity with dramatic form has left him helpless to move the action forward by any other method.
Even if that weren’t the case, Franco’s production keeps it stalling. The pace of the 100-minute play is generally lugubrious, except when it’s slower. (The pauses between scenes are totally dead.) His staging suggests the work of someone accustomed to the camera’s eye, not the audience’s: Things happen in corners we can barely see, and in static arrangements a film editor could give pulse to but that we cannot. More surprisingly, the acting — several cast members are part of Franco’s West Coast coterie — is highly uneven. Not just in quality (which is mostly subpar by New York standards) but in style. Each actor seems to have been left to work his way through the clichés of the script with only his own idiosyncratic tools. It’s a scavenger hunt at best.
All that said, you have to give Franco credit for devoting some millifraction of his lightning-bug attention to serious theater; if he’s no Anna D. Shapiro, whose direction of the Steinbeck was excellent, who’s to say he might not in time get closer? He should, however, seek out material that’s less glib and inconsistent — in other words, less like himself, or the self he mostly lets us see.
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The Long Shrift is a head-scratcher, leaving you asking “what?” But Atomic is the kind of show the late Mary Rodgers famously called a why? musical: One that fills no conceivable need. Or am I mistaken: Did the story of the nuclear physicist Leó Szilárd, one of the tortured brains behind the Manhattan Project, cry out to be deepened with pseudo-Who power ballads like “The Atom Bomb Is Here”?
No bad play is as bad as a bad musical, which has so many ways to fail. The creators of Atomic, originally staged in Australia, have cleverly found them all. In dramatizing Szilárd’s path from paper genius to deterrence enthusiast to horrified onlooker as his invention is used aggressively on Japan instead of as a threat to Germany, they have trivialized one of the most consequential stories in modern history and haven’t even offered any good tunes in return. With its loose threads of melody strung limply over armatures of familiar chords, the score depends for its effects on the empty gestures of confessional rock, which become more embarrassing the harder they’re pushed. Which is, in this case, very hard. A mere ten minutes in, Szilárd (Jeremy Kushnier) leaps onto a table at the intersection of hot white spots to belt his “Pinball Wizard” moment: “I will build a chain reaction that will light up the world.”
Just as bad as the songs (by Philip Foxman) is the book (by Danny Ginges and Gregory Bonsignore). It’s a relief when it is merely banal, applying to the moral questions of the bomb the same shallow intelligence it applies to Szilárd’s love life, to the paranoid political climate, and to the other scientists’ motivations. (Enrico Fermi, in Jonathan Hammond’s greasy performance, is an infantile, sex-crazed Chico Marx.) Later in the overlong show you will look back nostalgically on the trivial vulgarities of Act One, for the vulgarity of the Act Two climax (spoiler alert: the bomb gets dropped) puts those earlier infelicities to shame. I feel no compunction in revealing that the Hiroshima explosion is staged as a slo-mo ballet, with Szilárd as a kind of reverse Godzilla, personally delivering the punches of death to an innocent Japanese couple. Top that, Acid Queen!
A ton of money has been dropped on this unworthy project: Neil Patel’s set is way overbusy with subatomic imagery and electronic tickers, much of it thankfully blocked by the bad sightlines of the awkward space. David Finn’s pummeling lighting might induce epileptic seizures in a carrot. And the director, Damien Gray, seems to have been provided with an oversize budget for a luxury cast (including Euan Morton as J. Robert Oppenheimer and Sara Gettelfinger as Mrs. Szilard) who are most often and most convincingly utilized to spin a giant table in circles.
But as Rodgers asked about musicals like her father’s (much better) Do I Hear a Waltz?: Why? It doesn’t take a physicist to realize that the answer, in the case of Atomic, is vanity. (It has been produced by several of its creators under corporate names.) Vanity in the theater is a given, of course, the very air one breathes. But when it’s the only pure thing about the work, something’s very wrong. So as a form of deterrence to future bomb-makers I feel justified in pulling out all the puns in my arsenal and reporting that Atomic isn’t an earthshaking new musical. It’s a nuclear pile.
The Long Shrift is at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater through August 23.
Atomic is at the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row through August 16.