A Small Melodramatic Story
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
October 20, 2006
The protagonist of Stephen Belber's new play, A Small Melodramatic Story, starts the play fragile and cautious, and then turns—for lack of a better word—dumb. The kind of dumb that is so obvious that it would give one pause to wonder if she were doing in real life half the stuff she does in this play. Is the audience supposed to sympathize with someone this foolish? And, are we supposed to believe that the protagonist would behave the way she does without ever realizing how...well, dumb it is? If so, then the author has a big problem on his hands.
The protagonist is a widow in her late 30s called O. Her late husband, Burt, was a career military man who was apparently crazy. "He was walking down a street that didn't have streetlights," she tells us. "At 3am. In a football jersey and flip flops. And he got hit by a car." That was six years ago. Burt's best friend, Keith, has been looking after O since then. She and Keith are just buddies, but he'd like to take things further. He suspects that her reluctance to do so may have to do with lingering suspicions about Burt's death. You see, Keith is a conspiracy theorist who works for the National Security Archive, "an NGO with the biggest collection of declassified government files in the world." He believes that Burt's brain stem was affected by anti-nerve gas pills he took during the Gulf War, and wants O's permission to sniff around at work so they can find out for sure. "Everything that mankind has done is somewhere documented," Keith tells O. "Humans have this tendency to document themselves."
Then, there's Keith's friend, Perry, a local police detective who spars with him down at the gym. Sparks fly when O and Perry first meet, and they start dating. But, the honeymoon period doesn't last long. Keith does some digging in the archive, and unearths a long-lost accusation of police brutality leveled against Perry. The event in question, Perry's shooting of an unarmed teenage Latino kid, happened 15 years earlier. Perry claimed he didn't know the kid wasn't carrying—the victim was running away and reaching for something in his pocket, after all—and was cleared of any wrongdoing. But, O wants to find out exactly what kind of man she's dating, and launches her own investigation. Old wounds get re-opened and sleeping dogs are awakened, putting Perry in grave danger.
I'm not going to reveal more about the plot, but suffice it to say that O's snooping around under false pretenses (i.e., posing as a newspaper reporter) comes to no good. She even goes so far as to contact the primary witness to the shooting, the victim's younger brother, Cleo. What part of this plan does she think is a good idea? And, how much of it does Belber expect us to swallow? If he thinks O is justified in sticking her nose where it doesn't belong, I would counter that he is gravely mistaken. It just makes her look as crazy as her dead husband. (Not to mention that O is spurred on by information given to her by a guy who wants to get into her pants, and is jealous that his friend is sleeping with her. Not too bright, this girl.) Establishing her as a self-professed "transformative person" at the beginning of the play—"Transformative people are people who seek knowledge. And then use it as a means to a better end."—is just not good enough.
This is too bad, because a lot of talent is wasted here. Quincy Tyler Bernstine works overtime to make O plausible and sympathetic. Lee Sellars and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. both have nice moments of vulnerability, humor, and kindness as Keith and Perry, respectively, and, Carlo Alban is truly frightening as Cleo. Director Lucie Tiberghien does a great job building tension and making clear transitions from scene to scene. And, Matthew Richards's lighting is especially atmospheric. But, their best efforts cannot help a play that, I think, is fundamentally flawed at its core.