By Christopher Denham
Directed by Daniel Goldstein
Next Stages at B.U. Theatre, 210
264 Huntington Ave. Boston / (617) 238-5596
through June 28

Reviewed by Will Stackman

Next Stages appeared on the scene late last season with a production of "Over It", a four-person drama of betrayal, by Mark Adito. Last summer the group produced John Kuntz' "Jump Rope", a gay thriller involving intimate affairs in a trio. That script's NYC premiere has been delayed til this coming fall. Their current production, "Rapist James", written his senior year at UI by up-and-comer Christopher Denham, similarly concentrates on dramatic and contemporary interpersonal relationships. Unfortunately, it's the weakest of the lot. While Denham shows moments of brilliance in dialogue construction, his plotting, if you can call it that, is pure soap opera. The more his characters interact, the less convincing his scenario becomes.

Briefly, "Rapist James"--the title character never appears onstage--concerns the impending marriage of a free-spirited photographer Katie, played by Emerson grad actress-playwright, Amy French to Sam, a software 9-to-5-er on the way up, played by versatile Nathaniel McIntyre. When the play opens, Katie has apparently been raped by said James but is refusing to press charges, despite the urging of her husband-to-be and the ambiguous support of her married older sister, a successful academic, played by Julie Jirousek. As the plot unravels, it's clear that nothing is quite as it seems, which is the first problem with this script. There's no baseline. With no clear place to start, there's no way to resolve the action. WE can't quite believe these two people are getting married, even though it happens, as we all know. There's no way to care about any of the three people seen onstage. One starts wishing that James would show up. His invisible force becomes more interesting as the play progresses. Or that Amy's mother, who's always seems to have just phoned in from Heathrow, would arrive unexpectedly. Even a visit from Ellen's husband Bob or her biker landlord would help. The final scenes have "To Be Continued" written all over them. This script needs to go back to the workshop for reassembly.

The three characters, however, are eminently actable. The cast does fine as an ensemble and individually. Many scenes are enjoyable and ring true, but only in themselves. McIntyre, despite the rowdy roles he's had over the past few seasons, radiates normality, and when he breaks out of the mold, it's almost an epiphany. He's actually the only one we might come to care about. French has artistic obsession down cold, though an explanatory moment or anecdote somewhere in the script might help develop this side of her persona. But we don't get to know here. Jirousek, who's been seen locally in roles both dramatic and musical, seems very centered, until Ellen's past starts coming to the fore and her motives begin to proliferate. Individual scenes work in the hands of these competent actors. The play doesn't.

Peripatetic director Daniel Goldstein chose to do this script in the round, which helps focus on the action. This must seem a far cry from his recent job directing the national tour of "Mamma Mia." Company designer Christina Todesco created another economical setting with just enough apartment furniture and a slightly raised floor to improve sight-lines. The black and white photocollages which mark the entrances ironically set the scene, which is anything but. Jeff Carnivale's generally unobtrusive lighting shifts at dramatic moments by flooding color from underneath the seating--a nice touch. Carnivale incidentally lit the world premiere of Laurent's "2 Lives" at the Lyric recently. The director has a good ear for incidental music and the wardrobe collected by Kristin Glans is believable as Katie and Sam change onstage. Next Stages, under producer Justin Waldman and artistic director Matt August, is closely associated with the Huntington Theatre Company and the BU students involved know how to make the best use of the 210 rehearsal hall. This production is economical but substantial.

The author, who is currently appearing on Broadway in "Master Harold ..." as the title character has been commissioned by the Huntington to finish a script, "Haven", for future consideration. Denham was recommended to the company by Jon Robin Baitz, whose "Ten Unknowns" done here last season had similar problems finding a believable conclusion. Variety has featured this twenty-three year-old author as someone "Bound for Glory in 2003." Let's hope that prediction wasn't overly optimistic. Other scripts from the six he's completed are slated to surface soon.

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