Dialectics being the dry things they are, plays set up around meetings-of-minds tend toward the masturbatory and dull. The Mission isn't either, because of an almost Murder She Wrote-like penchant for pulpy plot twists and sudden shocking revelations. Awful as that sounds, and awkwardly as it's executed (the most shocking revelation of all, saved for the end, really could have come from Angela Lansbury's old mysteries-by-the-numbers), it's probably the best thing about the play. There really is a certain pleasure in watching this onion peel.
But an onion is still an onion, and so even as you enjoy the melodrama, you might find yourself distracted by a strange, low sound, like the tortured bending of old wood. It seems to emanate from all corners of the New Theatre's small auditorium. In fact that sound originates in your own throat. It is a noise of mingled horror and shame that is the only possible response to this tale of the ideologically opposed prisoner Joe Conte and chaplain Father James Corcorran, as they fall prey to a total lack of sympathy in artistic director Ricky J. Martinez's directing, and the unselfconscious, ham-handed verbosity infecting every last page of Jules Tasca's script.
Tasca is an Oxford professor who has written more than a hundred plays that could very well be excellent, but he has no idea how actual people speak. Midway through the show, I began jotting down fragments of some of the more painful phrases Conte used in his debates with the priest: "On the chessboard of existence." "In the existential game." "Inner smile of my heart that seeps through my lips." "Veil of polluted souls." "Each man is a labyrinth of evil unto himself." "Learn-ed in every deceitful ploy." "Rancor is as thick as cheese." "Black hole of deafness." "Pain attached to humanity like a pilot fish to a shark" (the script might actually say "attractive to humanity," but that's not what I heard). "I saw your dormant lust." "Just as sure as I locked you in a cage of sin."
Joe Conte is no ordinary prisoner; he's an intellectual with an inflated sense of his own verbal facility. But rather than having Conte and Corcorran square off in the passive-aggressive style actually used by real people, Martinez has actor William Gressman bray Conte's lines like an angry thug. The result is that when Conte and Corcorran begin talking about what fast friends they've become, midway through the play you wonder what you've missed. Certainly there was no sense of growing affection in the preceding scenes. Conte mostly just screamed, and Corcorran mostly just took it.
Maybe I caught The Mission on the wrong night. For this production, Martinez has introduced a newish gimmick at his theater: At every other performance, Gressman and actor Ricky Waugh, who played Corcorran at the show I attended, trade off roles. Gressman certainly has no feeling for long-winded poetics or agro — maybe he's more suited to vestments than jumpsuits.
At the same time, Waugh might fare better as a convict than as a priest. He played a very convincing bad-ass in Promethean Theatre's Two Sisters and a Piano just a couple of months ago, displaying far sturdier dramatic chops than are evidenced here. In The Mission, Waugh utterly overcooks the priest's nervous stutter, his chief dramatic affectation, until it overshadows everything he says. "I could call — could call — the b-b-b-bishop anytime I like," he insists, so obnoxiously delicate you figure the b-b-b-bishop will hang up the moment he realizes who's on the line.
This is Martinez's fault. He could have let some subtlety into his overheated production. He could've told Conte not to scream all the time, could've had Corcorran kill some of the affectations. Perhaps he could have even chopped out some of Tasca's most ornate filigree. But he didn't do that. Martinez's love of all things bigger, better, louder, more-er — a pining for operatics, histrionics, all climax and no foreplay — sucks up all the oxygen in the room. This unthinking adherence to bombast blinds artists to the real potential of their source material.
The Mission's failures are many and complex. They are also tragic, because underneath all those layers of unnaturally baroque language, bone-headed direction, broad-stroke acting, and screaming egomania, there is an interesting story waiting to be told. This is not that telling.