THE BLOG

First Nighter: Nick Jones' Verité, Stephen Adly Guirgis' Between Riverside and Crazy

02/18/2015 07:42 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

Nick Jones could have fooled me -- and he did with Verité, his new comedy(?) at Lincoln Center's Claire Tow. But he didn't fool me for very long.

When the action began with Jo Darum (Anna Camp) reading to son Lincoln (Oliver Hollmann) from her manuscript about dragons and alluring maidens, I was intrigued. When she goes on to quarrel with husband Josh (Danny Wolohan) about publishing prospects, which he denigrates, and then almost immediately is called to a pubbery where giddily enthusiastic editors in cropped suits and peppy socks make Jo a startling offer, I continued to be held.

Then, however, my interest began to wane--slowly at first and then rapidly. The on-setting problem is that Andreas Venler (Matt McGrath) and Sven Kandetty (Robert Sella), who speak in silly accents, tell Jo it isn't her book they like but her writing voice. To take advantage of that unique voice, they want to give her $50,000 to write a memoir. Their only condition is that it has to be more exciting than the relatively normal life she maintains she leads.

(Question to Jones: Has he named his protagonist Jo after Jo March of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women? That Jo, too, initially wrote far-fetched romances, and only after she writes a humble memoir does she hit pay dirt.)

Smelling something fishy--as well she should--Jo tells Josh about the offer and adds she's going to decline. Smelling something more lucrative than any alternative prospects the family has, Josh talks her into it. Now encouraged and further prodded by the devilish Venler and Kandetty, Jo decides to go for it.

That's when things at the top of the dramatic slippery slope accelerate destructively downhill. Jo judges that her life with Josh and Lincoln isn't sufficiently titillating for bestsellerdom--"You don't think I'm commercial," young Lincoln whimpers, amusingly. She reckons she needs to stir things up quickly.

This she does with questionable arrival Winston (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who approaches her at a pharmacy claiming to be an old schoolmate. She doesn't recognize him but plays along. Her rationale is that he's crossed her path because he was sent there by Venler and Kandetty to draw her into the kind of illicit affair that will give her something for that high-lying memoir approaching Fifty Shades of Grey spice. (No, Virginia, the E. L. James volumes aren't mentioned.)

That's when, as Jo and Winston seek out Colombia sunsets by which to get it on, I lost all hope for Jones' work. I suspect you will, too, should you seek it out. The strain put on credulity is so weighty that I can't imagine anyone falling for it.

Is it believable that a happily married wife and mother would get herself in such a bind? Is it likely she would jeopardize her home under circumstances that lead to fighting off an attempted rape in a foreign land? Even in a piece its author might want to be perceived as surreal? To quote Macauley Culkin in the Home Alone movies, "I don't think so?"

And by the way, as she's living her escapade, she often dictates it in the kind of mundane prose no one would call the utterances of an author with a unique voice. Or was the Venler-Kandetty "fresh voice" claim merely bushwah geared to convince her? Furthermore, since Josh was so insistent that Jo go for the cash, why doesn't she point that out to him when he becomes unforgiving of her tactics?

Nevertheless, nothing has been spared to put on this nonsense. Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, whose far superior Hand to God moves to Broadway shortly, has helped his cast make the best of a bad situation. That includes the always-strong Jeanine Serralles, who plays Josh's stylish sister, Liz Darum. It also includes young Hollmann, who's most appealing as Lincoln.

Few expenses look to have been spared on Andrew Boyce's sets, which eventually revolve, or on Paloma Young's costumes. She did well with the socks that McGrath and Sella wear as they keep up their weirdly disturbing commentary. She's also found some eye-catching shoes for Jo and Liz.

FYI: Jones is a co-producer of Orange Is the New Black and a series writer as well. Nevertheless, Verité is not the new hit.

* * *

Between Riverside and Crazy, Stephen Adly Guirgis' latest high-powered play that opened a few months back at the Atlantic Theater, is on view again at the Second Stage Theatre on West 43rd Street.

Guirgis can be funny--and is as the play opens with Pops (Stephen McKinley Henderson) swapping observations with drug-damaged house guest Oswaldo (Victor Almanzar)--but the humor is almost always in the service of much more serious action.

Several years earlier Pops, a New York City former cop, was shot six times by a rookie officer in an after-hours bar. Pops was out of uniform. He's sued but hasn't received satisfaction and sticks to his, uh, guns when former partner O'Connor (Elizabeth Canavan) and fiancé Carr (Michael Rispoli), a police lieutenant, drop by to convince him to accept a settlement.

His refusal--citing his having been called "nigger" in the situation--continues, while son Junior (Ron Cephas Jones) and his intended Lulu (Rosal Colon) go about their various businesses. (Junior has a drug-selling past.) Also, Church Lady (Liza Colon-Zayas) visits with promises to cure Pops of his impotence by way of Santeria-like rituals. Her ministrations, which Pops initially refuses, do have surprising results.

While Between Riverside and Crazy doesn't weigh in as the first-rate playwright's best work, it's line-for-line, scene-for-scene persuasive, certainly as played by the reunited cast and again directed with muscle by Austin Pendleton on Walt Spangler's evocative three-part revolving set.

What makes the production extra-special is Henderson in the focal role. Long a steadfast August Wilson player, he's familiar to audiences in supporting roles of various lengths. Here, he's handed the lead and is marvelous in it--cranky, funny, emotional. The burly actor with the full beard finally demonstrates the full authority it's long been clear he commands. Next stop King Lear?