Scofflaw Playwriting, Standout Acting: ON CLOVER ROAD at Contemporary American Theater Festival

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Scofflaw Playwriting, Standout Acting: ON CLOVER ROAD at Contemporary American Theater Festival

Tasha Lawrence and Lee Sellars

Tasha Lawrence and Lee Sellars

Posted on BroadwayWorld July 16, 2015

The main rules of stage thrillers are simple. Agatha Christie knew them. Ira Levin knew them. And these rules are really not negotiable if you want to write a successful stage thriller.

One: There must be an objective state of affairs. Of course the audience won’t understand it at the beginning, but at the end the audience must be able to look back, after all the shocking reveals have shocked, and after all illusions have been stripped away, and see that the basic facts apparent at the end were true all the time and are still true. In other words, this is representational art, neither abstract nor experimental nor magical.

Two: The ending must resolve all mystifications, ambiguities and dilemmas.

Those are the big ones. There are a couple of others, like you can’t kill off the character the audience identifies with, at least until the end. But mostly it comes down to those two main rules.

Steven Dietz‘s On Clover Road, receiving a premiere at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, manages to break both big ones. This is not a good thing. While it would be difficult to describe Dietz’s departures from these rules in detail without entering spoiler territory, let me be as specific as I can. A major development which seems irreversible is somehow reversed without explanation, as if by magic. The system of double-crosses critical to any thriller becomes impenetrably complex. And the ending could mean any of three things that I could count. Dietz, a journeyman playwright, should know better.

Apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln (as the joke goes), how was the play? Answer: It has its moments. The action, from the shadowy world of religious cults and deprogrammers, takes place in the ruins of a derelict motel, where distraught mother Kate (Tasha Lawrence) has been brought by Stine (Lee Sellars), a supposed specialist in reuniting abandoned parents with cult-brainwashed youngsters. Stine intends (so he says) to abduct Kate’s daughter from the cult’s commune and work with her here. The shockingly scuzzy room, a monstrosity in decaying plywood, is well realized by David M. Barber, whose recreation of a working auto repair garage in last year’s North of the Boulevard was equally impressive. The room almost becomes a character in its own right. And what the set tells us immediately is that something is terribly wrong with Kate and Stine’s scheme. So does a financial fact revealed in the early going. In the course of the play, we find out what that something and several other somethings are.

In an interview in the program notes, Dietz announces the ambition of building on a thriller template “a drama that has the emotional resonance of a woman trying to reunite with her daughter.” I think in that sense Dietz succeeds, minimally. Amidst the cruelty and the carnage that ensues from Kate’s entry on her quest for her daughter, such a drama may be glimpsed. We develop some real insight into how the daughter might have fallen under the cult’s spell, specifically the mother’s possible part in that happening. “Might” being the key word.

“Might,” not “did” because a thriller is not really the right vehicle to explore such issues very deeply. In a thriller, where every statement may be a deliberate lie, insightful remarks and accusations shrieked in the heat of a confrontation, the staples of serious family drama, may not be what they seem, and are certainly not reliable, less so here because even the thriller template is unreliable. (See Rules One and Two, above.)

The two things we can be fairly sure of are Kate’s desire to reclaim her daughter and her determination to stay alive as she does so. Tasha Lawrence does a fine job in bringing out both the grit and the terror involved in Kate’s pursuit of her quest. It is a meaty role, and she makes the most of it, dragging the audience’s sympathies along with her character even as the latter’s failings and weaknesses are exposed.

Conversely, the things we can be least sure of are Stine’s agenda and his motivations. As the play progresses Stine becomes a paragon of untrustworthiness, and Lee Sellars is quite believable at it, if that makes any sense, barking out grim deprogrammer talk that sets up the distance Kate and the audience are to keep from him: “And now your feelings are hurt. You’ll come to thank me for that. We can be much more effective as a team if you hate my guts. If you can’t stand the sight of me.”

But standout performances stand out only so far with a thriller so inconclusive. This play is an official “rolling premiere” of the National New Play Network, meaning it will be produced at least twice again in the next twelve months. The Network’s website acknowledges as part of the agenda of rolling premieres is “making adjustments based on what is learned from each production.” I hope what is learned here first is adherence to Thriller Rules. If corresponding adjustments are made, there may be more hope for the family drama component as well, though of that it is impossible to be certain. If the underlying problem is not fixed, though, I would expect audiences to be so upset with having their legitimate expectations trifled with they will never embrace this play.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Seth Freeman.

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