Fifty Shades of Meh: Zoetic Stage's BDSM Dramedy Trust Has No Crack to Its Whip

Meh
Meh
Photo by Justin Namon

Irony, along with brevity, can be the soul of wit. But if it's done poorly, irony is the bailiwick of unimaginative writers who can't see past the most obvious cognitive dissonance. The psychiatrist who needs a psychiatrist, the professional matchmaker whose love life is a shambles, and the self-help guru who can't tie his own shoelaces are the shopworn stuff of mass-market fiction and middlebrow movies and television.

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Paul Weitz's Trust, enjoying its regional premiere at Zoetic Stage, suffers the same malady. In this case, the chief object of irony is Prudence (even her character name is high-school lit-class ironic), a leather-clad dominatrix who, outside the workplace, finds herself the submissive victim of domineering men. It's the first of many implausibly convenient reversals in a play that, though initially promising, melts inexorably into a puddle of hollow insights, simplistic psychology, and pretentious pathos.

The production's accomplished director, Stuart Meltzer, seems adrift and toneless here.

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It didn't have to be this way. The play's first three scenes walk a marvelously calibrated tightrope between the amusing and the uncomfortable. Nicholas Richberg plays Harry, the multimillionaire founder of an internet startup who sold his company before the bubble burst. Now bored and restless in his marriage and career, he follows a Village Voice advertisement into a dominatrix's den. The luridly red set, finely designed by Elayne Bryan, is all BDSM couture, with whips of varying length and intensity displayed on the walls like fabric samples. Dildos seemingly engineered for giants rest on an intimidating side table. This is where the bob-wigged, whip-wielding "Carol" (Niki Fridh), soon revealed to be Harry's high-school crush Prudence, employs herself.

Richberg plays the scene like a nervous nebbish far out of his comfort zone, a bit like the characters Albert Brooks portrayed 30 years ago. He eyes every torture-dungeon accoutrement like a patient might a dentist's tool palette, hoping they're not meant for his procedure. When Prudence orders him to lick her boot, Richberg completes the task with the enthusiasm of a drunk college freshman bent over his first toilet. The scene takes on an added richness when Harry calls Prudence out after recognizing her features behind the makeup and leather. Fridh's demeanor and posture changes; suddenly exposed, she becomes emotionally naked and awkward of tongue. The scene ends masterfully with an unlikely coffee date across the street.

Soon afterward, Harry is back home, performing hapless oral sex on his wife Aleeza (Gretchen Porro), who, in a ruthless comic touch, prefers to read while he flounders hopelessly beneath the sheets. Her attempt to pleasure him ends just as acridly, revealing a sex life of impromptu crying fits and mutual anhedonia.

The scene is hilarious and wincing. Aleeza has her own reasons for her fundamental unhappiness, not the least of which is her stalled art career. But Harry, with a logic only men possess, thinks that introducing her to Prudence -- who calls her profession in the field of kinkology "a branch of psychology" -- can fix their wayward relationship.

Things begin to spiral toward a dramaturgical abyss when we first see Prudence at home with her "sort-of husband" Morton (Alex Alvarez).The show never recaptures its former glory. Morton is an irritable, intelligent slugabed who suffers from wasted potential and speaks in a vocabulary of film-noir clichés. It's never clear if he's supposed to be a self-parodic buffoon or a genuinely threatening presence. Alvarez tries to play him both ways and never finds a three-dimensional person. Though the actor's trademark explosiveness salvages his first poorly written, expository scene, his throbbing-vein performance begins to chafe against a character who speaks in dick jokes and Humpty Dumpty references. Describing his refusal to take a job, he exclaims, "You know who stands on the shoulders of giants? Midgets!" On paper it sounds like a laugh line, but Alvarez delivers it in a torrent of rage, and the only response from the audience is silence.

The issue of tone becomes the production's central problem. Where one might find humor in the play's unorthodox dynamic -- as a filmmaker, Weitz codirected American Pie and wrote the political satire American Dreamz -- Meltzer largely sees bitterness. Darkness drowns out the light; anger outweighs the mirth. As Trust plods along, the finely tooled dark comedy of its opening salvo becomes lost in translation.

By the time we reach the end, Richberg and Fridh are as inert as they were vibrant in the opening scenes, subjected to uttering ponderous poetry while staring at the fourth wall: talking mannequins waiting for the show to peter into its anticlimax (Porro, meanwhile, always seems like she's acting). Here, it seems, Meltzer and his cast can work only with the gruel they're fed, and they get no assist from Weitz, a capable comic scenarist who, on this bumpy occasion, seems to fashion himself a tragedian.

You also get the impression Weitz has never seen the inside of an S&M dungeon or spoken to a provider of its services. Far be it from me to defend the artistic merits of American Pie, but consider that 16 long years ago Weitz created a culture-capturing work of prurient controversy in which a high-schooler fucked a pie. Now he's written a play predicated on sexual domination -- power and leather figure prominently in its marketing materials -- that's not only more vanilla than prime-time network television but also boring.

There were throngs of walkouts at last Saturday night's performance. Perhaps they didn't leave in a huff of offense; maybe they departed because they weren't offended enough.

Trust runs through March 29 at Zoetic Stage at the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-959-6722, arshtcenter.org. Tickets cost $45.


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Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts

1300 Biscayne Blvd.
Miami, FL 33132

305-949-6722

www.arshtcenter.org


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