Go to enough theater over the years and, at some point, you’re bound to see a show that you just don’t understand. Perhaps an experimental one that’s so opaque it’s like snorkeling through mud to find the meaning. Or maybe a new adaptation of a classic that drops too many threads in its current fabric.
Rarely is it a naturalistic contemporary play about modern societal issues you’ve not only lived through, but discussed and debated at length with everyone in your social circle.
But rare doesn’t mean never and Alena Smith’s The New Sincerity — brought to Houston audiences by Firecracker Productions — baffles.
Not in the core of its narrative, mind you, which is alarmingly straightforward in a somewhat antiquated good girl/bad boy schematic.
The place is New York City and the date is 2017.
Rose, the “good girl," is a talented writer trying to build her career at a start-up literary magazine. At 29 she still says things like “gosh” when surprised and isn’t the least bit put off when her engaged editor makes drunken moves on her late one night at the office. Maybe because she likes him too.
Why she does, we have no idea. Benjamin, the “bad boy” editor, fancies himself a leftist hip intellectual, too good for the compromises he's had to make at the magazine (celebrity profiles, etc.) to placate his financial backer and co-founder. But really, he’s a self-aggrandizing ass, more concerned with his reputation and his looks than with his so-called progressive principles.
Rose’s appeasement and Benjamin’s morals come into conflict when Rose wants to file a story about the newly formed protest movement that’s going on in the park outside their office. Benjamin rejects the pitch, saying that aligning the magazine with a bunch of leaderless, homeless, bongo-drumming losers will damage the magazine.
Rose goes ahead anyway, dragging Benjamin and the magazine into the fight and bringing the two potentially closer romantically as they work the story together.
Will they or won’t they? Will Rose wise up to Benjamin’s caddish ways? Will Benjamin behave so badly that Rose will finally lose interest? Or will Rose be able to change Benjamin and get her man?
All of this is easily, if banally, digestible.
The problem then is trying to figure out what exactly Smith and, more importantly, Director Kelsey McMillan are trying to say with this construct.
Let’s start with the protest, unnamed in this play but obviously modeled on the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement that took hold in Zuccotti Park. Smith decided not to name the protest in her script or provide any insight about what those gathered were fighting for. A legitimate stylistic choice, frustrating as it may be for the audience.
If it’s 2017, are we to believe that the real Occupy didn’t happen? That this protest is maybe about something different? Or not? That because it amounted to nothing it could have happened at any time? And how are we to care when left so in the dark?
But all this is nowhere near as frustrating as McMillan’s inability to elicit any real passion for or against the protest from her cast. Sammy McManus as Rose may declare, “it’s outrageous,” when speaking of the police brutality against the protesters, but there’s no oomph to her anger. No conviction in her upset. If we can’t know the cause, surely we should be allowed to believe in the backer.
Similarly, Mark McManus as Benjamin lacks the smarmy energy needed to make his character sing. He says the inappropriate things. He quips publicly to an intern that he heard she gave his business partner a handjob, but it fails to disturb due to limp delivery.
No matter what emotions or evolution Rose and Benjamin experience in the show, the issue is that the performances are simply not as potent as the characters they’re trying to play.
Faring much better are the supporting cast who bring comedy, if not clarity, to the show. Magazine Intern Natasha (Paige Thomas, just a hair away from overplaying the sass) drops pop culture references like they were dust bunnies falling from a Dyson. “You’re so crafty, Rose…and I don’t mean you have a store on Etsy.” If Rose is the naïve idealist and Benjamin is the opportunist, then Natasha is the cheeky realist/cynic. Not really into the protest, but will go along for a laugh.
Without question, the most biting archetype is Django (Nolan LeGault, looking halfway between Jesus and a Woodstock attendee and affecting a convincing hippie vibe). One of the first to occupy the park, Django isn’t there so much to fight for whatever the group is fighting for as much as he’s there to score women. Plenty of women. Rose included.
So, then, what to make of all of this? The New Sincerity has been described as a dark comedy that thrusts specimen characters from the Occupy movement at us as a reflection of the effort’s failings and the established leftists’ inability to engage with it. And, perhaps in a different production, this notion might have shone through more clearly.
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But archetypes only work if they’re amped up to the fullest of expectations, and here they simply aren’t, leaving us with little irony or comedy to hold onto. And, more importantly, at a loss as to what the playwright and director were trying to communicate to us.
Add to this some other questionable directorial decisions, including scene changes accompanied by a podcast courtesy of Natasha entitled, What I had for breakfast, that fancies itself far more clever and amusing than it actually is. Additionally, an added intermission rather than running the one hour, 45-minute show straight through slows down the already sluggish trajectory.
In full, The New Sincerity baffles not because we can’t identify the overall story being told. But because we’re sure there are meanings, subtleties, insights and amusements on offer that, unfortunately, are out of reach. Not because we aren’t willing to work for them, but because someone, somewhere in this mix hasn’t made them available.
Performances of The New Sincerity continue at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays at MATCH, 3400 Main. Through August 10. For more information, call 713-521-4533 or visit matchouston.org. $12 to $20.