When Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland wanted to put on a show, they got themselves a barn. No such rural thespianism for first-time dramatist and high-profile Boston attorney Irwin M. Heller. A member of the Board of Trustees of the Wang Center for the Performing Arts as well as a managing partner of Mintz Levin, Heller was able to dovetail his playwriting ambitions with the Wang organization’s admirable efforts toward new-play development and finding uses for the oft-dark Shubert Theatre, which it manages. So Heller’s He She Them, a hand-wringing 70-minute investigation of a banal love affair, is receiving its world premiere in the slightly reconfigured Shubert (the stage has been built out over the orchestra pit), in a stripped-down but atmospheric staging directed by Steven Maler, artistic director of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, which came under the Wang umbrella last season.
Unfortunately, the play, however professionally gotten up, with Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire star Judd Nelson playing one of the two characters, is dry, trivial, and clichéd. Its two characters, who tell their story in retrospect, asking our advice in something that feels like a courtroom drama married to a counseling session, are convinced that their love, though adulterous, is "unique." Yet lawyer Heller provides no evidence of this. Nor does he make the characters — played by one-time Brat Packer Nelson and New York actress Tasha Lawrence — particularly personable. "He" is an unrealistic, rationalizing egotist; "she" is sincere but whiny; the case for "them" is that they enjoy sex and romance but also like to talk to each other, though it’s not clear why. Certainly neither has anything original to say.
Daniel is, in his words, a "single, successful, 46-year-old, first-generation American who made his fortune as a real-estate developer." He gets to know Lila, a married 36-year-old architect with a two-year-old child, when she is assigned by her firm to be chief designer of his latest project, which is, conveniently for the trysting to come, located in Washington, DC. This provides a lovely Four Seasons Hotel along with an excuse to be away on business. The couple fall, as the press release puts it, on love — which I guess means without meaning to — and Lila must decide whether to leave her comfortable marriage and co-parenting situation to follow the better part of her heart. That’s where we come in.
Lawrence’s chic but girlish Lila enters nervously, removes the bare-stage light, and takes one of two high white seats. She has asked us here to help her make a decision, she confides. Daniel, clean-cut, bespectacled, slightly nerdy, but meticulously dressed, will be along too, as a favor to her (and because she’d look really stupid acting out their love affair in flashback by herself). We are to be a kind of "Greek Chorus," advising her as though she were Medea — except that we haven’t a single strophe. Just as well; Greek Choruses are notoriously pesky. And, besides, by evening’s end, Lila makes up her own mind.
Between speeches making their case to us, the pair demonstrate how they have gotten to this impasse, items such as a desk, bed, or restaurant table moving forward as needed from behind the only permanent scenery, a raked-perspective row of illuminated panels. J Hagenbuckle provides a reflective score as events unfold, and neither Nelson, who has invented a precise language for his hands, nor Lawrence, who employs a fetching rasp, does a bad job, given the cards they’re dealt. In the first scene, for example, before there’s anything between them but the drawings, he must ask the loaded question, "Do you resent having to spend so much time with me at night?"
After a bit more jousting and the build-up of sexual tension, Lila agrees to a "compartmentalized" affair — being an architect, she will design her messy life into neat, not-to-mix niches. But rich, smitten Daniel wants more and proposes marriage — even though it’s painfully obvious that the "everyday" life he envisions has more to do with bathtubs full of rose petals than with Lila’s two-year-old (whom, naturally, he embraces in theory). And the clichés fly hot and heavier than the sparks: she is at one of Life’s "key crossroads"; "Life," he opines, "doesn’t give us guarantees, just opportunities."
Heller has genuine moral concerns, and at least he eschews melodrama. But his characters, by their own admission, are not "introspective." Indeed, I’ve seen fresher treatments of adultery not only in the theater — Pinter’s Betrayal comes to mind — but on television, where this talking-headed dance would still seem small. The play is certainly short — almost as truncated as its title. But in this case, brevity’s not the soul of anything.
Issue Date: October 10 - 16, 2003
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