David Caudle's In Development is a slight play wrestling with big issues. It loses.
In a "little town on a big mountain," an annual playwriting workshop is underway. Fresh-faced young artistes have paid buttloads of money to learn at the feet of aged, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning Gideon Flynn (Bill Schwartz). They come even though at this same workshop last year, a playwright took a fatal dive off a nearby waterfall after Flynn publicly criticized his work. (The critique hinted that his pupil's opening scene was an indication of its author's homosexuality — a remark you'd think would be less than devastating in a gathering of theater people.)
Flynn, like his students, seems to have let the incident go. He exuberantly struts around the stage like the sly old raconteur he imagines himself to be, exhorting his paying audience with pithy (and mostly X-rated) koans and aphorisms. He looks like a man without a care in the cosmos.
In Development: By David Caudle. Directed by Ricky J. Martinez. With Ricardo Rodriguez, Bill Schwartz, Aubrey Shavonn, Mark Della Ventura, and Sky Whitcomb. Through November 8. New Theatre, 4120 Laguna St., Coral Gables; 305-443-5909; new-theatre.org
Not so. As the workshop wends on, Flynn deteriorates dramatically. Soon we learn he is incapacitated by guilt — and by a writer's block that has lasted ten years.
Flynn's doubts and demons manifest as the ghost of his dead pupil, Patrick (Skye Whitcomb), which haunts the theater where Flynn excoriated his work. By the time Patrick has made a few artfully spooky passes through the shadows backstage, Flynn looks more like a crank than a sage. Wild-haired, half-drunk, noticeably seedy, spitting vitriol at his pupils' efforts before their plays are half-heard, he is completely undone; he could be channeling Johnny Depp in the last hour of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Deliciously overacted by Schwartz — a well-known former Miami Police spokesman — he is full of energy but curiously devoid of vitality. His mouth flaps like a collegiate kid's, but his eyes are those of a terrified little animal. By intermission, his increasingly frenetic and bitter outbursts — you can't call them "lectures" at that point — have come to look like spasms heralding imminent brain death.
The pupils peevishly react to Flynn's breakdown by preying on him. Subtly, smoothly, they morph from ambitious young aesthetes into savages — picture Lord of the Flies set at the Esalen Institute. One student blackmails the old playwright. Another, disgusted by Flynn's mental dilapidation, takes pot shots at him just when he's least able to defend himself. Yet another turns Flynn into a perversely sexualized father figure. Despite all the intrigue, backstabbing, bad vibes, and wanton sexing, the play is essentially childish.
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To explain In Development's greatest and most telling failing would be to give away its ending. I won't. All I will disclose is that everything I've just said about the play's story is made irrelevant by a clumsy and stupid coda that David Caudle — perhaps suffering from writer's block himself — appended to the show, seemingly because it had become too unwieldy. This coda tells us that what we've seen is not what we think we've seen, and that we were wrong to feel whatever it caused us to feel.
Thankfully, that's not much. In Development hemorrhages mojo because of an oft-indifferent performance by Ricardo Rodriguez as the hunky young wordsmith with daddy issues, and from a ridiculous turn by Aubrey Shavonn as the temptress-turned-blackmailer, Donna. Early in the show, Flynn exhorts his pupils to get visceral with their writing, to let it be sexy and smelly and rude: "You get that sticky, juicy ass and cunt and dick and tits [and let the audience] lap it up, raw." Perhaps misreading the advice, Shavonn spends her time onstage as strident and stiff as a 12-year-old's tumescent member.
Caudle is a fine — and often much better than fine — writer, but only on a word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence, line-by-line level. He fumbles on the level of story arc and thematic development, thus sabotaging his actors. Caudle's taut, intense first act opens into a second one of boundless ridiculousness that pushes well past the limits of audience credulity and actorly self-respect. We are asked, for instance, to believe that several young playwrights have dedicated a significant portion of their lives to enacting a criminal revenge fantasy against another playwright because of a perceived slight — and we are supposed to believe this while simultaneously witnessing the blossoming of a heretofore unexpected and terribly torrid secret gay romance. Then, moments later, we must regurgitate all the gross hokum we have just debased ourselves by swallowing when Caudle's awful just-kiddin' coda lumbers into view. How is an actor to cope with this? He cannot. Here cast members exhaust themselves trying to create characters for whom such antics will come naturally — which is, of course, impossible.
Oh, well. In Development is a brand-new play, and I have high hopes for that first act. It can be salvaged if In Development remains in development just a little longer, and if Caudle can take to heart Gideon Flynn's best, and most frequently repeated, bit of advice: Stop with the gimmickry. Tell the audience the truth.