By Dave Barton
By LP Hastings
By Sarah Bennett
By LP Hastings
By Jena Ardell
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
By Joel Beers
The sin in Wendy MacLeod's 1994 play Sin isn't the varying degrees of cardinal ones (gluttony, lust, vanity, etc.) committed by her eight characters. It's an unfortunate, dreadful second act that, in playwriting terms, approaches mortal-sin status. It's a shame because the first act, graced by fine performances and sparkling direction from Amy Louise Sebelius at the Garage Theatre, leaves the viewer with an expectation that there is much more to the play. But somewhere across her dramaturgical River Styx, MacLeod's Charon apparently pounded a bottle of moonshine and tipped overboard, leaving her boat to flounder in the darkness of unfulfilled potential.
As a kind of late-20th-century morality play (the kind of theatrical fare Neil Simon would have written in those glorious years between the Black Death and the Renaissance), our Everyman is a Not-So-Much Everywoman, Avery (Christine Cummings), an Ivy League-educated communications major who, some 10 years after graduating, is unfulfilled, to say the least.
Avery is a radio traffic reporter whose helicopter perch provides the spatial distance her psyche apparently needs from the people closest to her. She is saddled with a relatively menial job, a ridiculously power-hungry boss, an alcoholic husband, a junk food-devouring best friend and an outlook on life that, while painfully honest, is also painful to hear.
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Oh, and her brother is terminally ill, and she happens to live in San Francisco in October 1989. It's a city wracked by the walking plague of AIDS, which is decimating neighborhoods such as the Castro, where her brother lives, and also happens to uneasily rest on a fault line experiencing frequent tremors. And anyone who knows their California earthquake—or World Series—history knows what happened in October 1989.
It's not that Avery has given up on life. Though separated from him, she still adores her husband, but she can no longer abide his drinking. She still wants to move up in her career, which makes her put up with things that she feels are beneath her. And she's even dipping her paws into the dating scene, with predictably disastrous results.
It's not until the first act's final moments, which end a rather daunting day for her, that the play really kicks off. Or, at least, it should kick off. While the second act is set up to track Avery's desperate journey to get home after a dual shot of personal and public trauma, it's constantly derailed by digressions and emotional ketchup bursts that turn this ersatz version of A Pilgrim's Progress (ostensibly stalwart mortal citizen continually tempted by sin) into a realllllly long sob-fest of Stella trying very, very hard to get her groove back.
The second act lasts a little more than an hour, but it feels twice that long. Again, that's a shame because the actors, though rarely on the same tonal page, mostly do a terrific job. Cummings is a powerful Avery, multifaceted and even sympathetic at times, which is astounding because there's very little to like about the character. She is acerbic and judgmental, ripping into everyone from her mortally sick brother to her best friend about their sexual and eating habits. Yet Cummings skillfully finds moments to reveal the chinks in Avery's armor, allowing the audience to see a person who seems absolutely aware of who she is, but who really doesn't like living in her skin.
Her supporting cast ranges from the gleefully over-the-top Jason Rogel as her harried co-worker Fred, who embodies envy; a monotone but very funny Clayton Steacker, as her blind date, who is consumed by greed; Matthew Anderson, as her dashing drunkard husband, Michael (sloth); her unapologetically gluttonous best friend, Helen (Kaliko Kauahi); the lustful poet, Joe Howells, whose attempted wooing of Avery in the second act is merely one of the side-roads the play meanders down in the service of something other than story and plot; her ridiculously angry boss, Jason (Matt Stevens); and Gerard, her impossibly proud brother (a terrific Ian Jensen). While each of the actors contributes a solid performance, they each spin in a separate orbit, creating a tonal problem for the production, considering they circle Avery, who is so cold.
But the real issue here is the play's bottomless pit of a second act, which makes it impossible to get a good read on just what MacLeod wants to say. Sometimes crisis is what wakes us up to our humanity? Stop living with a stick up your ass and live a little? Eat more chocolate? Who knows?
Writing a play that makes the audience think is hardly a sin—as long as something seems to simmer beneath the surface. But in a play such as Sin, which robs its own narrative of urgency and empathy through shoehorning two years of therapy sessions into two-plus hours, it's not that the viewer has to think about what's going on; it's that the viewer just doesn't give a fuck.