First Nighter: Jordan Jaffe's 'Crude' Drills the Oil Industry

05/04/2016 10:08 pm ET Updated May 05, 2017

While I was watching Jordan Jaffe's Crude, I thought that this is one play I can't see ever being done anywhere in or near Texas. That tells you how uninformed about it I was on going into the small Ars Nova space, from which so much solid theater emerges these days.

Because, you see, Crude, having its world premiere here, will be produced shortly at Houston's Black Lab Theatre where Jaffe is artistic director. Yes sir, there in the heart of oil country Jaffe is ensconced and writing about the damage that can be done by corruption in the local millionaires' industry--or should I be saying "billionaires' industry"?

Jaffe spreads his net wide, having also written Fracked, about natural gas, and Beth Kills Birds, about wind. He must be a guy eager to suck the energy out of the problems with misguided energy enterprises. And if so, how, inquiring minds want to know, does he raise funds? Surely not by knocking the biggest potential backers?

In the meantime, here's Crude in which seemingly happily marrieds Jaime (Nico Tortorella) and Brittany (Eliza Huberth) are revealed on Caite Hevner's pleasant version of an upper-scale Houston living room. Snuggling, they're watching a commercial he's airing on their television screen.

Jaime has a reputable documentary on his resumé but sometime before he's shown here has left that calling to handle visual communications for his father, who's now running the oh-boy-is-it-lucrative family oil business. And from the sound of it, Dad runs things with an iron hand.

Lovey-dovey as the two are, Jaime takes umbrage when he asks Brittany if she has any constructive criticism of his new work and she mentions a few reservations. Not liking what he hears, he loses his temper momentarily, indicating an underlying anger management problem. Nonetheless, that appears to be the extent of any troubles the lovebirds have.

Until, that is, breaking television news reports a devastating oil spell for which KP is entirely responsible. If you haven't guessed, that's the family business to which Jaime and Brittany are beholden. Jaime is instantly animated, Brittany less so on his behalf. She happens to run an organization greatly concerned with the welfare of now threatened Texas wetlands.

That's when all Texas oilfields hell breaks loose. Jaime gets caught up in whatever commercial he can put together to take the onus off KP's involvement. Brittany announces she's off to rally her wetlands troops. She's not at all happy that Jaime, whose temper flares violently again, denigrates her work. He insists that while he heads to his office for reconnoitering purpose, she stays home and sees to aging Ralph, their dog.

Before long, Jaime's office mate Aaron (W. Tré Davis) arrives, and it's decided the pair will create the KP face-saving commercial there. Also on hand shortly is Aaron's favored drug dealer, Manny (Jose Joaquin Perez), who brings the gram of heroin the boys determine will see them through the crisis.

Does it? Guess. While you do, know that Crude is Jaffe's grenade thrown at questionable oil practices. The incensed playwright even slots in a debate between Jaime and Manny about the good and evil of oil when compared and contrasted with easily obtained recreational drugs. It's doozy banter, too, leading the audience to side with one, then the other, then the other--and like that.

But Crude is also Jaffe's study of a man who's turned his back on a career he loved to toil in a business he defends, even as his wife tries to make him see what's truly going on with him, that his growing discontent stems from compulsive, deleterious denial.

So Crude is a character study the handsome Tortorella, whom television audiences know from Younger, calls on his major acting chops to portray. One of Jaffe's achievements is that in only 85 intermissionless minutes he presents one promising young man's total disintegration, and Tortorella is up to the demands. The result is a condemnation of anyone who's ever sold out his soul for steady creature comforts.

Both Tortorella and Davis, also on top of his form, make scarifying the scene when, drugged to the gills, they run up a frightening commercial in which they lean heavily and cynically on the regularity with which Americans come together in times of crisis. Huberth and Perez complete the hot quartet. They're directed with understanding and skill by Kel Haney.