One Bright Star
Kyle, a likable young man with a slightly geeky aura, sits alone at the edge of the stage and talks disarmingly to the audience. He is an astronomer, so he talks about the stars. He loves poetry too. Most of all, though, he loves Zoe -- his first high school crush, the love of his life, the stuff of dreams, now a dream lost forever. What might have been a storybook romance of a bookish boy and a wild, kooky girl who brought him out of his shell has turned to absurd tragedy. One night, barely six years into their happy marriage, Zoe went to the store and never came back.
Kyle's monologue is heartbreaking, even before we learn Zoe was raped and murdered. It is an extended aria of grief at the heart of Touch, a tender and fascinating play by Toni Press-Coffman now at the New Theatre in a production directed by Gail Garrisan. If the rest of the play does not quite come up to the promise of its daring first half-hour, it remains a lovely pastiche of raw feelings, of the awkward dance to the music of faith and reason, of science and poetry -- of the deepest, inconsolable sorrow and of finding solace in the arms of strangers. Particularly when Bruce Linser as Kyle is alone onstage, or when Pedro A. Remirez's lighting makes him seem as if he were, Touch really does touch the heart.
There's a lot here: a bit of Proof, a touch of The Sterile Cuckoo, perhaps even Educating Rita, plus whatever you can remember about a hooker with a heart of gold. Yet in the end Touch is just a short story, a one-act stretched dangerously beyond its possibilities. It is not that the sad tale is not worth telling. It is. But rather that it is told best in the first half-hour, in Kyle's opening scene; and that the three supporting characters are merely accessories to Kyle's grief.
The fragile tenderness of a prostitute's touch rings true, but its resonance is dampened by clichés. The parallel romance between Kyle's best friend Bennie and Zoe's sister Serena not only does not feel natural but it also does not matter. It feels like a playwright's conceit of symmetry rather than an organic part of the plot. The intermission further dilutes the strength of what is at heart an extended monologue. And frankly it is also overkill to depend on both Keats's poetry and the astronomer's universe to deliver all the metaphorical baggage Press-Coffman stuffs into Kyle's tragedy, from supernovas and black holes to grief and comfort in hookers, with a pit stop to remember that truth is beauty and beauty truth. Any imagery would do, but clumsily juxtaposing all of them plus the second law of thermodynamics makes for dramatic clutter. The audience really does not need to know that the amount of disorder within any closed system will only grow over time, even less to wonder how this might play out in the case of Kyle's coming to terms with the death of his wife. As Keats, of all people, put it: "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter...." A little discretion, a moment of silence, an earlier curtain, and some no-nonsense editing could work wonders for this script.
That said, the playwright is on to something when she lets her protagonist simply act out his grief. Press-Coffman has created a juicy role in Kyle, and New Theatre's Linser makes the most of it. Completely recovered from The Diaries earlier this season, the young actor here has a part to which he can bring some truth. From the tour de force of the opening monologue -- an actor's dream of opportunities -- right through his permanent pout and his sense of puzzlement at the cruelty of the world, Kyle's pain is authentic. If Zoe, who is never seen, has a stronger presence than the other characters, it is thanks to the strength of Linser's evocative magic. Rich Simone's unit set, a maze of steps and curtains, reinforces the impression that all that really matters, all that may be happening, is happening to Kyle.
Brandon Morris is self-effacing and at times moving as Bennie, and his performance would likely be even better if Jenny Levine's Serena were flesh and blood rather than cardboard. As the whore Kathleen, whose sexual healing Kyle purchases regularly by the hour after Zoe's death, Lela Elam starts out as a Fox network cartoon but approaches this woman's bittersweet plight by the end. That none of the three fully comes to life is only partly their fault and the director's. Touch is a play about the stars, but only one star gets to shine.
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