Near the end of “The Long Shrift” — James Franco’s debut as a theater director — one character says to another, and to the audience at large: “Let’s stop. I’m getting bored with this.” My thoughts exactly.
Mr Franco’s efforts in film directing have seemingly borne fruit—after seeing his upcoming Child of God, the Times’ Manohla Dargis felt it reasonable to declare, “It’s time to start taking [Franco] seriously, at least as a filmmaker.” But it’s hard to imagine even Francophiles lining up for this one. It is difficult, after all, to take a play seriously when the actors function like cardboard cut-outs reciting lines written by a robot. But let’s backtrack.
“The Long Shrift,” written by Robert Boswell and currently being performed at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, opens as Henry (Brian Lally, of LA Confidential) and Sarah (Ally Sheedy, best known for The Breakfast Club) move into a flimsy new house, which Sarah immediately brands a “hovel.” The reason for their reduced circumstances, it turns out, is the legal fees they’ve paid during their 18-year-old son’s trial for rape. Despite the expenditure, son Richard (Scott Haze) ended up in prison, while his padres ended up here. Sarah is bitter and considers her child potentially guilty; Henry is weak but convinced of Richard’s innocence. They’re both slightly grating.
Cut to the next scene, and it’s 10 years later. Richard is back home: after five years, his accuser recanted and he was sprung from prison. He’s been wandering for the intervening years, avoiding home. Now, he’s come back. Sarah is dead, Henry is still pathetic, and Richard has mysteriously been invited to the High School reunion.
Soon enough, his accuser/victim Beth (played with some nuance by Ahna O’Reilly) turns up at the door, hoping for an Oprah-style reconciliatory encounter. Richard is, to say the least, not keen; he infuriating refuses to listen to a word she says for much of the play—a choice that comes off as a painfully artificial means of creating dramatic tension. Sadly, said tension leads to the most insufferable scene of all: a completely overblown showdown in the school gymnasium, which involves a swastika tattoo-reveal.
Most of the time, the actors seem confused as to whether they are striving for realism or melodrama, and they are woefully unassisted by a script that is by turns hysterical and banal. One of the play’s only redeeming elements is the appearance of Allie Gallerani as Macy— a horrifically perky cheerleader/straight-As type, desperately convinced that a beautiful reconciliation between the rapist and his victim at the reunion (which she’s organizing) will indubitably result in her acceptance to multiple Ivy Leagues. But Macy is a walking stereotype in what is ostensibly a “realist drama” and even our tolerance for her brittle brightness is limited.
Haze is apparently an “up-and-comer” (according to my neighbors, whose conversation I overheard), fresh out of several other Franco collaborations—including Child of God. I myself have never seen his film work, but I humbly advise that perhaps he stick to that medium. Here, his efforts as Richard are wooden and unsympathetic.
At the dramatic heart of Boswell’s script is the question of the crime, and whether or not it can be categorized as such. As in so many discussions of rape, the to-ing and fro-ing on the question of was it or wasn’t it failed to grasp my imagination or stimulate my critical faculties. Rape is rape, kids. Although eventually Richard does admit to wrongdoing, the fact that he functions as the play’s (supposedly charismatic?) anti-hero and that Beth is villainized for much of the script gives one the uncomfortable feeling that we are meant to side with the dorky, can’t-believe-his-luck 18-year-old version of Richard, and not with prom queen princess Beth.
Or, more precisely, we are seemingly meant to understand that both of these characters have committed transgressions, and both need to be forgiven. The inherent assumption that Beth is in part to blame for Richard’s circumstances seemed, to me, repugnant—whether or not the boy represented a real danger to anyone else, or should have been incarcerated. Society’s tendency to sympathize with the “misunderstood” accused aggressor needs no further encouragement. (Though the play is certainly timely in light of the revelation that Conor Oberst’s accuser has admitted she was lying.)
None of this, perhaps, is Franco’s fault. And kudos to him for tackling a tricky script, potentially weighty subject matter, and a new role (theater director!) to add right next to orator on his resume. Also to his credit, and this is faint praise here, he never over-directs his actors—with talent like this you might assume he didn’t have to, but his lackluster ensemble will swiftly prove you wrong.
Throughout the 100 minute (no intermission) performance, signs and symbols appear and are treated auspiciously, but the audience, I would hazard, doesn’t give a shit. “The Long Shrift” never manages to engage—never manages to suspend anyone’s disbelief for long enough that the symbolism central to the entropic world of the play can translate meaningfully to the outside observer. At one point, a glass is banged down with emphasis onto a table. But the glass is plastic, the sound muffled. The play itself felt phoney, incompletely realized, not quite there. I left the theater hungry (those 100 minutes really dragged) but otherwise numb. Ultimately, “The Long Shrift” is a play that in trying to say something meaningful about complex issues manages to say not very much at all.
“The Long Shrift” is playing at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (224 Waverly Place), through August 23rd. Now in Previews. Find tickets and showtimes here.