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Missionary Position

part of
The New York International Fringe Festival

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray


The New York International Fringe Festival often delivers hopefulness and heartbreak in equal measure, but rarely are they matched as equally as in Stan Richardson's new play Veritas. It's based on a spectacular (and sadly true) idea: The apparent suicide of a young Harvard student in 1920 led to a witch hunt in which the acclaimed university expelled a number of students suspected of committing homosexual acts. And, in fact, that concept is so good, and the seeds of its promise so great, you're willing to forgive this 100-minute show many transgressions. After a while, however, you can't help but wish it—and Ryan J. Davis's production—had fewer you had to forgive.

Of the 10-man cast, only Doug Kreeger (as the dead boy's older brother, and the instigator of the investigation) makes a lasting impression: This is in part because of his considerable brooding magnetism (which he put to such arresting effect in the musical Thrill Me five years ago), but more because he's the only actor allowed to stand out. Clad in a crisp black business suit and shirtsleeves, and armed with a piercing modern vernacular, he is an instant and welcome change from the stuffed-shirt, stuffy-voiced portrayals of the rest of his costars, who create nine functionally indistinguishable characters from Richardson's one-level, hoity-toity dialogue.

The show also does not benefit from its staunch refusal to embrace any sort of realism—nearly every scene is staged (and set) in a formless black limbo, with two (or sometimes three) actors staring out at the audience more than each other as they intone their upper-crusty lines in carefully wrought Mid-Atlantic tones. Some scenes even find the actors punctuating (or replacing) crucial syllables of others' speeches with foot stamps, and the ostensibly dramatic inquisition scene itself eventually descends into little but, as if this were instead a production of Machinal or The Adding Machine (both from roughly the time period of the show's setting).

This is a small matter, but not an unimportant one—this sort of Expressionist detour does not typically benefit plays about how one person or one group deviates from a particular norm. By demanding a world more rhythmic than recognizable, Richardson and Davis seem to admit that our world has changed so much that the action is rightfully considered foreign. This viewpoint is only strengthened by the performers' impenetrable patois and a very difficult final scene, more Lawrence and Lee than Sophie Treadwell, that alternately mocks and hyperextends the characters' fortunes.

This scene makes it an even greater challenge to know whether any of what you've been watching should be taken seriously, but there's no doubt that Veritas itself must be. It has joined an exclusive roster of Fringe Festival shows that have sold out their full runs before playing a single performance. (An extra show was added, and it too was snapped up almost immediately.) So a future for Richardson's play, whether at the upcoming FringeNYC Encores series or in a commercial production, is all but assured, which will be good news for those who wanted to see it but acted too late. Veritas seems to have the fundamental components necessary to earn its accolades and healthy houses, just not as currently constructed or staged. Given that its title means "truth," this is a play that needs to work even harder than it is to find and present its own to its best advantage.

VENUE #17: HERE Arts Center- Mainstage Theater
Thu 26 @ 3:30 Fri 27 @ 5:15 Sat 28 @ 8

Missionary Position

At a key point in Confessions of a Mormon Boy, the first play in Steven Fales's "Mormon Boy" trilogy, wind-up-toy performer Fales dropped his Vaseline-coated personality to stand and speak emotionally naked (and bereft of a major, appearance-altering accessory) about his recovery from being excommunicated for his homosexuality. That moment, fleeting and isolated as it was in Fales's first show, was powerful enough to compel me to attend his second, Missionary Position. That'll teach me.

Thoroughly plastic and utterly unconvincing from beginning to end, the show sort of chronicles Fales's two-year mission to Portugal at age 19, when he was still in the throes of his sexual awakening. But it does so with a declarative and frankly depressing addiction to artifice that makes its wax-museum predator seem positively fleshly in comparison. Whether speaking of the painful process of converting a Catholic girl who didn't know what she was getting into, of sharing tender moments with a man who does not quite share his feelings, or of revealing sacred (and secret) Church rites, Fales observes his existence from a distance that would frustrate most professional astronomers. He recites his lines as if a living tape recorder, never even attempt to connect to the audience on a human level. (Even his badinage asking if there are any Mormons, Jews, or Military in the house sounds painfully scripted.)

Its title is as close as Missionary Position gets to playful—otherwise, this is as labored and lumbering a production as I've ever seen at the Fringe Festival. (No director is credited. One wonders if someone in that position might help; it certainly couldn't hurt.) Though it covers some territory from the earlier show that ideally it probably wouldn't, the biggest stumbling block is the resolutely fake Fales himself. The ossified and Disneyfied person he insists on playing makes it seem that his problems emanated from somewhere far deeper and scarier than Salt Lake City, which doesn't help him in winning his ongoing blame game. If there's emotional value in Fales's tales—and Missionary Position suggests that might not be a complete impossibility—Fales will never unearth it as long as he continues to be more afraid of himself than he is of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

VENUE #16: The SoHo Playhouse
Fri 27 @ 6

Tickets online at FringeNYC Tickets

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