NEW YORK -- There was an unhappy time in America when ratting out your friends for entertaining socialist ideas was considered by some in the government to be patriotic.
It may be difficult to believe that could happen in the so-called "land of the free." But that was the way the U.S. House of Representatives' Un-American Activities Committee treated American citizens during the 1940s-early 1950s in particular. Careers and lives were ruined, when people were "black-listed" for failing to give up some friends' names to save themselves.
British playwright Matt Charman makes his New York City debut with "Regrets," his examination of the effect of this government intimidation on average Americans. His quietly effective drama, which opened Tuesday night off-Broadway in a well-acted production at Manhattan Theatre Club, features a group of men in limbo, temporarily living together at a divorce camp outside Reno, Nevada in 1954.
Director Carolyn Cantor stages the testosterone-laden drama with an eye toward revealing the more complex sides of the four men, who must establish six weeks of residency in Nevada to legalize their pending quickie divorces. Two are ex-military, one is a pet store owner in New York and the fourth seems barely out of high school.
Three of the men are regretfully giving up on almost a decade of marriage each. Former high-school teacher Ben, an emotionally war-torn soldier and the anchor of the group, is portrayed by Brian Hutchison with an air of decency and natural leadership. In contrast, the other ex-military man, Gerald, is a hothead, prone to vulgarity and fits of temper; he's played as flawed but basically decent by Lucas Caleb Rooney.
Richard Topol is sweetly despairing as Alvin, who still loves his wife very much and meekly did everything to please her. Youthful newcomer Caleb (an impressive professional acting debut by high school senior Ansel Elgort) turns out to really be only 18 years old, but is carrying the most dangerous baggage of all the men.
Adriane Lenox gives a resonant performance as Mrs. Duke, the no-nonsense manager of the camp who gradually reveals an underlying good-hearted nature. Alexis Bledel (Rory Gilmore in the long-running TV series "Gilmore Girls") is delicate and graceful as Chrissie, a sweet local girl who sells her favors to men at the camp, hoping to find one who will take her away from her grim life.
Just when it seems that the biggest problem is going to be Chrissie's abusive home life and the awful dinnertime stews, it turns out that Caleb is being trailed by an investigator for the so-called House Committee on Un-American Activities. Curt Bouril is smug and frightening as agent Hanratty, with his gotcha-style abuse of power.
Ben scoffs when Hanratty describes the community life of the camp as "People living in close proximity sharing pots and pans? Sure sounds like a commune to me." Yet just a short time later, his military disability pension having been threatened, Ben is nervously assuring the agent that Caleb "isn't one of us."
Charman's dialogue and Cantor's direction let the characters display what fear often does to people, as they become small and self-motivated. It's unclear who, if anybody, might step up and stand by young Caleb in his time of trial. Yet these are men who, as Ben says, already made "Colossal, life ending mistakes," so it's not unlikely that somebody might be able to step outside the circle of fear inscribed around them, and lend Caleb a helping hand as he tests the courage of his youthful convictions.