Monday, April 18, 2011

High: Can Faith See Us Through the Pain of Life?

Kathleen Turner and Even Jonigkeit

Question: Is playwright Matthew Lombardo planning to specialize in writing three-character dramas with complicated alcoholic foul-mouthed women at their center?

Just asking. Cuz last year he gave us Looped, a three-character play starring Valerie Harper as the complicated alcoholic foul-mouthed Tallulah Bankhead. And now, he is offering High, a three-character play starring Kathleen Turner as a complicated alcoholic foul-mouthed nun/drug counselor. Both plays, incidentally, were helmed by the same director, Rob Ruggiero. These guys may have quite a little franchise going.

In any event, High, like Looped, is a downtown play that got on the wrong subway and landed in the midtown theater district. As such, it has all of the markings of a vanity production in which a well-known actress rather past the ingénue stage of her career is brought on board to chew up the scenery and bring in the paying customers.

Oddly enough, this doesn’t mean that High isn’t interesting or compelling. It is actually both, thanks to some sharp dialog and strong performances by the two main characters: Ms. Turner as Sister Jamison Connelly, and Evan Jonigkeit, making his New York debut as Cody, a teen-aged gay hustler and drug addict undergoing court-ordered counseling. (The third character, a Catholic priest, is gamely played by Stephen Kunken, but the role itself is little more than a plot device that, unfortunately, takes away from the veracity of the play).

Despite the play’s shortcomings, it is fascinating to watch Turner and Jonigkeit dance around the boxing ring as they face off. Life has made Sister Jamie, as she is called, as tough and nearly as street-wise as Cody, and his efforts to psych her out lead him nowhere. As the play progresses, there are enough revelations about both characters to keep us engaged, and while the ultimate outcome is predictable, it is predictable in ways that are honest, if sadly inevitable.

Along the way, the playwright encourages us to consider questions of trust, faith, guilt, forgiveness, and even the routines and responsibilities of life that compel most of us to pick ourselves up and forge ahead, even during those times when we would just as soon chuck it all.

Had High been ensconced at a small off Broadway house, it might have fared better than it is likely to at the Booth Theatre. This is no grand enterprise about nuns and priests and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, like Doubt; it is a domestic drama of the sort that doesn’t draw the Wednesday matinee crowds or the accompanying must-see buzz. Still, it has the ring of truth (Mr. Lombardo has dedicated the play to his “sponsor,” which suggests he may know a thing or two about the subject matter of alcoholism and/or drug addition) and two solid performances at its core that make it worth a visit.

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