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First Nighter: Robert Boswell's The Long Shrift, John Banville's Love in the Wars

07/14/2014 06:52 pm ET | Updated Sep 13, 2014

The last 10 minutes or so of Robert Boswell's play The Long Shrift, at the Rattlestick, are richly dramatic. During them Richard (Scott Haze) and Beth (Ahna O'Reilly) finally get to the confrontation towards which some extremely tense events have been leading.

Classmates at Seattle's Lancaster High School, Richard and Beth didn't travel in the same circles. Nevertheless, Beth invited Richard to her 1999 post-prom party and during it led him to an upstairs bedroom, where they had a sexual encounter. She subsequently claimed she was raped. Richard was tried, convicted and sent to prison. When Beth recanted five years later, he was released. He's now home after another five years drifting, and he's considering whether to attend his 10th Lancaster reunion.

The strength of Boswell's final scene is his bringing together two characters whose mistakes a decade earlier have condemned them to severely constrained lives. Richard has turned into a hardened and hating young man, and Beth has become a local pariah. As Boswell contrives it, their hammering out the past is the only way either of them can hope to break through to anything approaching a promising future.

It's a heart-rending situation that -- as played by Haze and O'Reilly and directed by ubiquitous polymath James Franco -- is thoroughly riveting. The prospect of two damaged people seeking salvation through each other isn't something at which you quickly turn up your nose.

The shock of Boswell's script is that just about everything leading to the denouement is confusing. Some of it is merely extraneous; some of it doesn't rise above the comically two-dimensional; some of it is downright bad writing. Sitting through it all to arrive at the final scene is nothing less than tedious, particularly when there's no promise, given Boswell's poor construction, that a final scene will be any better than what's preceded it.

The Long Shrift begins with Richard and Beth nowhere in sight. Instead, his battling parents Henry (Brian Lally) and Sarah (Ally Sheedy) are discovered 10 years earlier moving into the unwelcoming home to which they've been driven as a result of the legal fees they accumulated for carrying out Richard's ultimately unsuccessful defense. (Andromache Chalfant's set strongly resembles the downscale abodes frequently viewed on the Rattlestick stage.)

The first item Sarah takes from the packed boxes placed here and there is a phosphorescent vase. Uh-oh. Whether the valuable item breaks before final curtain won't be revealed here, but what's your guess? And that obvious symbol is only the beginning of Boswell's problems.

Sarah starts nagging and keeps it up, even though her presence in the proceedings -- she shows up later in a dream sequence with a flashback in it -- could arguably be eliminated without affecting the play's focal concern: whether Richard and Sarah can overcome the calamitous ramifications of their impetuous one-night stand.

Yet another scene gone haywire is one where Richard, having wavered on attending the reunion, does go and drags Sarah along with him. It's highly unlikely that the provocative speech he makes to classmates -- during which he reveals a tattoo of a swastika on his chest that he acquired in prison -- would be allowed to go uninterrupted under actual circumstances. Nor would any class reunion have been organized by dim-witted, 17-year-old Macy (Allie Gallerani), a current Lancaster High student, and not by a member of the reunion class.

Oh well, the cast works hard under Franco's gritty direction, even though for four-fifths of the time it's to modest avail. and only Haze and O'Reilly get to play the one truly tough-minded sequence.

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The brilliant novelist and essayist John Banville has such a passion for the brilliant but deeply disturbed Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) that he's completed contemporary versions of the earlier playwright's works -- The Broken Jug, God's Gift (based on Amphitryon) and Love in the Wars (based on Penthesilea).

Lucky for us, the latter 1808 work (pointedly not a translation) is having its world premiere at The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College. Or is it lucky for us? I'm not convinced the production, directed by Ken Rus Shmoll, is serving Banville as well as it might.

Though Marsha Ginsberg's white-and-grey set featuring a Biedermeier divan is elegantly spare and Oana Botez's contemporary costumes are fashionably sleek, the tale of the non-Homeric love-hate entanglement between Greek warrior Achilles (Chris Stack) and Amazon warrior Penthesilea (Birgit Huppuch) during the Trojan war doesn't play as well as a reading of the script, written in iambic pentameter, suggests it should.

At its core, both the Kleist and Banville plays are as strong a metaphor of the battle of the sexes as literary history has produced. (It's a precursor to Warren Adler's The War of the Roses, shortly to be a musical.) Initially, Achilles and Penthesilea -- among comrades Odysseus (Jeffrey Binder), Agamemnon (KeiLyn Jones), a High Priestess (Karen Kandel), Prothoe (Karen Pittman) and others -- are enemies. Then they're frenemies. Then lovers. Their affair, however, takes a losing games-people-play form, with Achilles conniving to surrender to Penthesilea in battle so that she can feel sufficiently superior to him and therefore will succumb to his romantic advances.

Known for mixing and mingling comedy and tragedy in helter-skelter manner, Kleist -- by way of Banville -- means to be funny about the situation until he isn't. But whatever the directorial and acting recipe might be for achieving that end, it isn't followed at the Fisher Center.

There's a difference between a singsong delivery to which iambic pentameter can too often lead and a manuscript's desirable musicality. As Shmoll guides it, a singsong delivery is nicely eschewed but, with the exception of Kandel's High Priestess, any consistent sense of musicality isn't reached. Rather, a large amount of playground shouting is prevalent; there's virtually no laughter attained. Granted, when Odysseus, who's observed the lovers wrangle for a while, says, "Take it from me--no man is worth all this," he definitely elicits a chuckle.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Love in the Wars and in Penthesilea is (spoiler warning) that at the end both Achilles and Penthesilea are dead. Prothoe says, "There was no help for her on this earth." The line echoes what Kleist wrote in a suicide note to his sister -- "There was no help for me on earth"--before he shot himself and his lover, the already dying Henriette Vogel. In other words, Kleist realized in his death what he'd already created for the theater. That's a hard fact to dismiss lightly.