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Road to Self-Satisfaction

Don't be fooled. Although Lee Blessing's usual eloquence gives Down the Road the look and feel of Devastating Cultural Analysis, its heart is pure pop psychology. The subject under discussion is that old canard, The Commodification of The Individual and The Ascendance of Celebrity Culture, but Blessing can't seem to...
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Don't be fooled. Although Lee Blessing's usual eloquence gives Down the Road the look and feel of Devastating Cultural Analysis, its heart is pure pop psychology. The subject under discussion is that old canard, The Commodification of The Individual and The Ascendance of Celebrity Culture, but Blessing can't seem to find anything interesting to say about it. Down the Road asks no questions it can't answer, and that makes the play very easy to buddy up to, to make friends with. It's the kind of thing you can mull over afterward while sucking down martinis with your theatergoing pals and waxing morose about the sorry state of the world, without ever once feeling implicated yourself.

The play follows Dan and Iris Henniman (Christopher Kauffman and Margie Elias Eisenberg), husband and wife writers-for-hire, as they conduct a series of interviews with a convicted serial killer for a "true crime" book. As they work, they become increasingly disgusted with the nature of their project. Dan doesn't want to think about it; he hates the gig but is willing to sublimate all such feelings in the name of professionalism and a paycheck. Iris is more restless, endlessly torturing herself with the Big Questions: "Why are we doing this?" "Why do people want to read about a serial killer?" "Are we glamorizing this guy?" Meanwhile the murderer, Bill Reach (Daniel Lugo), comes to dominate the action more and more, until it seems his dominion extends infinitely beyond his own cell, into the bad conscience of every American who is confused about the intersection of morals, money, and fame.

As artistic director Adalberto J. Acevedo explained just before showtime, the Alliance Theatre Lab is a "company of directors" in which individual directors are assigned certain subjects to tackle over the course of a season. It's easy to see why Down the Road's premise would appeal to any director looking to lay hands on some volatile material. On paper, Down the Road looks like a great foil for all kinds of investigations into marriage, the mixing of the public and the private, the nature of celebrity, and so on.

It's difficult to pin down exactly where those investigations failed. Director Rachel Finley is working with a good group of actors. Christopher Kauffman's Dan Henniman walks a pretty neat line between personal mortification and professional resignation, though he seems too gawky for a veteran journalist and sometimes loses his cool too easily. In one instant he comes on like a glum Jimmy Olsen, and in the next he's screaming at his wife. The transitions are too fast and can be unnerving.

But Kauffman gives himself bodily and whole-heartedly to both his gawkiness and his anger, and if it's sometimes difficult to understand his motivations, you might as well blame the script. Kauffman displayed flawless dynamic instincts a couple of months ago in All the Great Books (Abridged), and it's inconceivable he has lost his mojo in the intervening weeks.

Anyway, the play seems to anticipate and move with Kauffman's weird temperamental spasms. Every time he accosts his wife, Margie Eisenberg gives back as good as she gets, the very portrait of imploding torment and despair. It's fantastic to watch. Early on she's reserved, displaying an implacable, stoic professionalism even in her conversations with the killer. When she snaps, it looks and feels like floodgates opening, a release of tension that has been imperceptibly building since she first walked onstage.

But none of this really connects in any meaningful way. Eisenberg does a virtuoso onstage meltdown, Kauffman does virtuoso jitters, and it's all very technical. It's impressive in the abstract, but the feelings of despair and confusion being pantomimed never make their way to the audience.

I'm afraid most of the blame will be laid, somewhat unfairly, at the feet of Daniel Lugo, whose twisted serial killer/necrophiliac Bill Reach seems, in his prison jumpsuit and handcuffs, like the least threatening person in the theater. It's an ugly thing to say, especially since I'm pretty sure he's an excellent actor. Lugo is extremely magnetic, and his mugging and nervous movements and sudden tantrums are all exciting to watch, but he doesn't seem evil, even when he's describing in graphic detail all the evil things he has done. His "I'm a vicious monster — watch out!" stance seems like a shuck he has taken a few steps too far. He's just a pathetic kid with a few problems: a bad case of solipsism, an unhealthy obsession with fame, and a big barrel of insecurities. If it weren't for the whole serial-killer thing, you'd want to give the guy a hug.

But I don't mind any of that, because I suspect it's realistic. Serial killers probably do appear to be broken people; folks in healthy states of mind generally pursue less destructive hobbies. What's not realistic is the way the other two characters treat him like Grendel. That's the script's fault.

Down the Road's dual explorations of Bill Reach's motivations and the public's unending fascination with senseless violence cannot cover any ground that any thinking person hasn't covered and dismissed. We learn that Bill has spent his life feeling mediocre and ultimately decided that murder was the only surefire way to transcend the workaday mundanity of his existence. We learn that he needed to be famous, because in America, only the famous matter. And we learn that, in writing their book, Dan and Iris are perpetuating the concept of killer-as-celebrity that drove Bill to murder in the first place.

Of course there have always been psychos. If some of today's more gruesome criminals claim to be motivated by fame, this play never explains how that differs from the ideological mania of Robespierre in the Nineteenth Century or the religion-fueled sadism of Torquemada in the Fifteenth. A play less interested in satisfying its audience's expectations would have shied away from taking potshots at the star system and would have sought out more elusive targets. Instead Blessing decided to play it safe, to allow us to leave his show feeling undeservedly mollified. He knows the theatergoing public doesn't much like "true crime" books anyway.

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