The Woolgatherer, Jughead, at Victory Gardens Studio Theater. No director is credited for this production of yet another hackneyed, unsubtle William Mastrosimone drama. Which is a shame, because despite Mastrosimone’s patently artificial emotional pyrotechnics, actors Michael Seneca and Jeanette Telders Knight almost succeed in creating seemingly impossible theatrical alchemy.

Seneca turns Cliff, the world-weary, brutish trucker who tries to woo desperate and fragile Rose, into a disarmingly sympathetic and articulate character. In Seneca’s hands, Cliff’s monologue about the loneliness of the long-distance trucker, which on paper is pure theatrical kitsch, becomes something gripping and profound. Alas, Knight fails to convince us that the delicate candy-counter worker exists anywhere but in Mastrosimone’s sexist imagination. Still, she gives the character a strength and dignity difficult to find in the script, which consistently makes light of Rose’s simplicity.

Knight and Seneca are engaging, and they develop a palpable chemistry. But much of their action feels random and improvisational–that is, directionless–as they pace and gesticulate vaguely on an empty stage. The lack of props to signify Rose’s sparse apartment doesn’t make the production feel minimal–it makes it look like a scene-study class performance. You keep wondering whether the actors are crashing into imaginary walls or kicking over pantomime cacti. Seneca and Knight deserve better than this. Then again, they probably deserve better than Mastrosimone’s play, too.

–Adam Langer