The new play ‘Collision’ by Lyle Kessler, now playing at the Rattlestick Theater is a knotty, but arresting play that is painfully timely. I don’t want to give too much away, as the various taglines and briefs circulating in the promotional material, and indeed, the plays structure itself hold more than a whiff of the enigmatic. But, in light of recent events, viewer be warned: this is a piece that involves guns--a lot of them.
The titular collision plays out in an unnamed college where we track the descent of a sundry group of lost souls. The first we meet are odd couple roommates Grange and Bromley, who from day one have a skewed dynamic. The pretentiously platitudinal Grange monopolizes their living space, (a convincing freshman double by scenic designer Alfred Schatz), festooning it with the trappings of firebrand undergrads: a banner of Che Guevara, a poster of Kurt Cobain, and his final conquest: the acquisition of Bromley’s bed, cementing his sway over his hapless roommate. This seizure is followed up in the next scene by the carnal conquest of a classmate, Doe, our third member, in that very same bed.
The first fifteen minutes are an exercise in dialectic, and for that reason, the play at first lacks a certain heft or tangible dramatic question. But, with the, shall I say, violent induction of the final member of our party: Grange’s philosophy professor, Denton the play takes on a major tonal shift.
This think-tank, under Grange’s direction have regular meetings, passing a joint and indulging in autobiographical asides, underlined by lighting designer Evan Roby’s warm colors and punctuating crossfades. The group harps on the origins of their idiosyncratic names and wax philosophical on the relative goodness of mankind with various Once Upon a Time-style stories, notably bereft of the customary moral. We come to learn everyone has battle scars (some literal) like the soldiers on Saint Crispin’s whom Grange repeatedly invokes as a call to arms—for the play, ever so slowly becomes something much darker with Grange’s manipulations culminating in a jarringly violent, tragic denouement— all of it caught on camcorder.
The team is up to the task at hand, with dynamic direction from David Fofi and a rock-solid ensemble. James Kaulz’s turn as the dangerously charismatic Grange is a performance not soon to be forgotten. Nick Lawson and Anna Stromberg as Bromley and Doe fill their roles with a delicate vulnerability, and Michael Cullen plays the humbled Professor Denton with just the right measure of bombast and paternal care. Also present is TV fixture Craig “muMs” Grant who capably plays the shifty, amusing arms dealer, Renel.
The script, by veteran playwright, Kessler (whose 1983 play Orphans is slated for a high profile revival on Broadway this season) is often at odds with itself, scrambling for balance between banal dialogue and grandiloquence—the college freshmen speaking more like first year grad students, or, in some more antiquated exchanges of stilted cliche, like characters out of Downton Abbey—even Doe, our most colloquial character has lapses at one moment promising to “Make herself scarce.” To Kessler’s credit, tension builds well and we believe, for the most part, the journeys and conversions of all our players, whose many costume changes (furnished by costume designer Jaime Torres, appropriately and astutely collegiate, professorial and low-life) give us a sense of time elapsed.
As our band of broken malefactors reach a point of no return, what we are to make of it all seems elusive. At times Collision seems so cocksure in its nihilism, that one can’t simply call it satire, and what the play demands in empathy (if that’s what it’s asking for) becomes taxing. The timing is simply, and unfortunately poor for such a character study, as a beleaguered public may care less now for the “why” and more for the “how” of tragedy prevention. In a world saturated with overblown exposure of monsters--especially when the only apparent pathology among our “heroes” is a solipsistic narcissism buttressed by injustice and ennui-- it seems a bit much. But, maybe I miss the mark and the true nihilism in the play is the senselessness of violence--but then why are we made to care about them at all, if only to hope they can pull themselves from the brink?
The Amoralists Theatre Company who produced this play–said collective’s name could easily do double-duty as the play’s title-- have as their mission statement a commitment to reserve moral judgment: a laudable, if tricky aspiration. But, perhaps, through an accident of time and place, the wounds are too fresh to broach the given subject through such a lens.