Renegade Theatre Company

at the Royal George Theatre Center’s Gallery

Wouldn’t it be funny if a hit man called his psychiatrist while he was on a job? Wouldn’t it be even funnier if the psychiatrist were a sniveling, insecure gambler begging his patient for guidance and assurance? The author of Faithful, Chazz Palminteri, was perhaps too caught up in the hilarity of his own concepts to envision how unfunny all this could be onstage. Faithful, a diverting if unoriginal story about a captor and captive who become allies, continually challenges our suspension of disbelief with ludicrous or cliched scenarios.

“Faithful. You shoulda been faithful.” For a brief moment we assume the man with the heavy New York accent is yelling at his wife. The twist: he’s a hit man explaining to his victim that because of her infidelity her husband wants her dead. It’s as if Tony, pacing nervously in front of Maggie, who’s bound in a chair, needs to assume the jealousy and fury of the man who hired him in order to work up the nerve to kill her. Is he a cold-blooded killer or an anxiety-ridden mess? Though he claims to be a professional, Tony is unbelievably careless. While waiting for the husband’s signal–two rings on the telephone–that his alibi is solid, Tony takes off his gloves, pours himself a drink, has a few smokes, and makes a sandwich. After he’s left his fingerprints all over the house, Tony feels free to phone his therapist–first making sure Maggie has Call Waiting. This from the hit man who claims to have killed the father of the only woman he ever loved?

Of course, this setup gives Maggie a chance to bargain for her life. We expect Maggie to try to win Tony’s confidence, but it would be more plausible if her methods weren’t so blatant. Would a woman really ask her would-be murderer “Have you ever been in love?” or “Do you think I’m pretty?” Granted, two strangers can become close quickly in extreme circumstances, but even in an old friend it would be presumptuous to ask, “What’s wrong, Tony? Why do you hurt so much inside?” Though anger in this situation might seem far more appropriate, it’s still unlikely that Maggie would lash out childishly at Tony with “Big guy! He’s gonna kill a woman.”

Though Maggie’s speeches and her life are filled with cliches–her husband can’t stand that he owes his financial success to her so he’s unfaithful–she manages to be an interesting mix of strengths and vulnerabilities. Perhaps some cliches are true. Even a vibrant woman can grow dependent if she thinks her job is to wait around the house all day for her husband to come home. And perhaps a woman can take charge of her life again after years of mere subsistence. After suffering 15 years of her husband’s affairs, Maggie has only recently dabbled in infidelity herself. It’s certainly satisfying to watch her revive physically and spiritually, as she wins Tony’s trust and greets her very surprised husband upon his return, just after the intermission.

Compared to the first act, which is driven by cliches and an occasional artificial jump when the phone rings–is it the husband, signaling Maggie’s death, or that goofy sobbing psychiatrist again?–the second act sparks as Maggie, with newfound backbone, battles her husband for the truth about his infidelities and for Tony’s allegiance. Though the ending offers no huge surprise, Palminteri gives us enough real twists and turns in the second half to reveal even more clearly what’s missing in the first.

Renegade Theatre Company’s production of Faithful opens with a bang that promises more than they deliver, at least until the second act. On a dark stage two figures struggle, accompanied by menacing music. Setting an almost gothic mood, the loud string instruments and drums give the impression of a thunderstorm outside that matches the turmoil of the people inside this fashionable home (set and lighting design by Greg Frankfurter). Though the threat of violence remains as long as Tony has a gun and is intent on killing Maggie, the script’s broad humor diffuses most of the tension. The play just can’t match the dark mood established in the opening, and that’s too bad.

Director Mark Liermann’s challenge is to unify Tony’s split personality and make the warp-speed development of Tony and Maggie’s relationship plausible. Nelson Russo’s Tony yells at Maggie one minute and whines to his psychiatrist the next, but rather than create irony his performance emphasizes the character’s inconsistencies. Eventually Tony admits he hasn’t killed that many people, but he seems far too buffoonish even for a part-time killer. In the play’s less ridiculous moments, however, Russo is genuinely funny, and especially in the latter half gives Tony an underlying sensitivity that makes him the attractive equal of Maggie. As Maggie, Shannon Branham succeeds at making her character seem intelligent even as she bombards a man hired to kill her with pseudo-philosophical questions about men and fidelity and, later, as she considers taking her husband back. As Jack, Maggie’s skirt-chasing spouse, Karl Potthoff has fewer obstacles: his character is consistently arrogant, greedy, and stupidly cruel.

A haven for fantasy, the theater is one of the few places where a victim can become the victor in two hours’ time. A play doesn’t have to be true to everyday life, just true to human nature. And that’s where Faithful is untrue.