Stage Left Theatre

at the Organic Theater Company Greenhouse, Lab Theater

The title of David Rush’s new play may be insipid–Dapples and Grays–but the playwright has made many bold, even brutal choices. In a botched suicide attempt, Brian swallowed a bottle of sulfuric acid and is now in the hospital. His gullet has been eaten away, several internal organs have ruptured, and he is in constant excruciating pain. A priest named Gary has been summoned by a nurse, but Gary is tormented by his own problems: a history of debauched back-room sex. These two self-loathing individuals come together in a desperate attempt to understand the nature of grace and forgiveness.

Their relationship seems doomed to fail. Brian, who has endured childhood sexual abuse and has had drug and alcohol problems as an adult, is impatient with Gary’s pat, formulaic Christian comforts. Gary perversely wants to save Brian’s soul to redeem himself, wants to prove his own worth as a priest; at one point he howls at Brian, “You’re going to die in grace if I have to kill you for it!” Despite the veneer of civility–these men spend as much time charming as attacking one another–the world of Dapples and Grays is a harsh one in which faith is either beneath contempt orbeyond understanding.

Scenic designer Robert G. Smith provides a stage environment as beguiling and seductive as Rush’s story is tormented and harrowing. In an inspired departure from the script’s overt tone, Smith creates a Magritte-like serenity: all sides of the stage are covered by drapes painted robin’s-egg blue with powder-puff clouds drifting by. A similarly painted curtain hangs center stage on a circular track. These ethereal drapes are breathtakingly counterpointed by two remnants of red velvet curtains, hung asymmetrically like unruly passions in front of the blue drapes on opposite sides of the stage. Behind the circular curtain is Brian’s hospital bed, which might seem an island of brutal reality in this surreal sea of tranquility except that it’s so perfectly stark in its frank, head-on presentation, all clean, geometric lines and polished wood-grain finish, achieving a mesmerizing hyperreality. These two worlds–the hyperreal and the surreal–are delicately bridged by Brian’s intravenous bag, a “real” bag like the “real” bed but filled with “magic” fluid and hanging inexplicably, no pole, in midair.

Like the IV bag, Brian and Gary hang suspended-between the earthly and the spiritual, the sacred and the profane. This is the psychological landscape of crisis. Here even the most ordinary activities achieve monumental significance: Brian derives great comfort, for example, from sucking a few drops of water out of a piece of gauze. Questions normally buried in the daily grind–How does one find redemption in a secular world? Is any human failing unforgivable?–demand immediate answers.

Rush has set himself a difficult task. Not only are the questions he grapples with fundamentally unanswerable–and some might argue that in the contemporary world they’re irrelevant–but he chooses to play out this enormous drama with only two characters, one of whom cannot leave his bed. Rush’s instincts are dead-on, however, for only by distilling these timeless struggles can his drama be of a manageable scope.

Finding the idiosyncratic details that will root his play in the here and now is Rush’s greatest challenge. Much of the first three scenes of this five-scene work remains frustratingly generic. Brian embodies self-loathing and cynicism frosted with the occasional campy quip. His contempt for the priest is not only predictable but remains unchanged for too long. During the first half of the play, Brian is more a dramatic convention–representing the potential for spiritual transformation–than he is a three-dimensional character. In the beginning Gary seems similarly generic, the compassionate priest with just enough irreverence to make him human. His real stakes in the situation–his shame at his past and his growing love for Brian–don’t drive him until after the third scene.

Nor has Rush quite found a successful way to dramatize the relationship. Brian and Gary spend a lot of time talking about how they feel or relating stories from their troubled pasts, a confessional approach that sacrifices dramatic urgency for efficient emotional exposition. The play should start with the emotional stakes demonstrably high, then show in a more compelling fashion how these feelings and past experiences affect the men’s choices during this crisis; that way the play would unfold in the present, not retreat into the past.

By the end, Rush has offered just these solutions to the problems his play presents. The dramatically brilliant final scenes of Dapples and Grays take place in a highly charged present full of subtle, unexpected turns. These scenes demonstrate an emotional, psychological, and spiritual complexity that’s only nascent in the earlier ones.

Rush is fortunate to have two such intelligent and passionate actors in this world-premiere production by Stage Left. Don Tieri as Brian and William Bannon as Gary take sophisticated approaches to their characters, rarely resorting to brute force or hysterics in a script that might seem to invite both. The care they take, under the meticulous hand of director Drew Martin, not only makes a good deal of difficult material palatable and even appealing but prevents either actor from overpowering the other. The resulting clear, balanced production puts the play first, as the staging of a new script should.