Dammit, dammit, dammit, dammit, dammit.
Dominic Orlando’s The Sense of What Should Be comes as close as almost any new play I’ve seen in the last ten years to being absolutely perfect. Right up until the end. And then it lost me. But damn, what an amazing ride. Anybody who loves smart, well-written, well-acted, well-directed theater should see Workhaus Collective’s current production of The Sense of What Should Be for the 99.9 percent of the thing that is just so damn good. Then track me down and argue with me about the last 0.1 percent. Because this production hasn’t just got heart, it’s got something much, much rarer—it’s got a soul. And when the script is true to that soul, the thing positively sings. It’s gorgeous.
|the sense of what should be, playing through november 21 at the playwrights’ center. for tickets ($8-$15) and information, see workhauscollective.org.|
Teenage Adam (Dylan Frederick) visits disgraced minister Bruce (John Middleton) and enlists him in a scheme to blackmail select citizens of their small town in order to set a much larger, and more dangerous, plan into motion which could get them revenge, riches, or just get everyone killed. Blackmail targets include the high school’s champion swimmer Marie (Joanna Harmon), and the mayor (Cory Hinkle). Also trammeled up in this misbegotten caper are Tessa (Christine Weber), the young woman who caused the minister to fall from grace, and Derek (Daniel Jimenez), the high school football quarterback who’s dating Marie, and also happens to be the mayor’s son.
Now, there’s any number of ways a person could screw up a set-up like that, but The Sense of What Should Be doesn’t. Repeatedly doesn’t. Not only does the script take the incendiary seed of the plot for all it’s worth, it delivers dozens of things you aren’t expecting. It digs deep, and then goes deeper. And deeper. There’s the thrill of watching characters do things most of us would never have the nerve to think about, much less actually do or say. But it goes beyond that. This script manages to thoughtfully, respectfully, unfold issues of faith, and loss of faith, and disbelief, in a way I haven’t seen in a long, long time. It takes nothing for granted. It doesn’t let anyone off the hook. It doesn’t prop itself up on easy platitudes. It asks hard questions, offers up multiple points of view, always grounded firmly in character and situation, and then allows the audience to make up its own mind.
But The Sense of What Should Be isn’t a Sunday school lesson. It’s highly irreverent, and even a little bit sexy. Faith, or the lack of it, isn’t just a religious notion. It extends here to the faith people place in one another, in the depth of relationships between characters, in their aching need to connect with one another. Bruce finds a surrogate son in Adam, even as the boy threatens to drag him into a moral abyss so deep he’ll never be able to recover himself or the man he once was. Adam not only finds a replacement for the parents who don’t exist in his life, he also starts to find the beginnings of true friendship and perhaps romance, with multiple characters, even as he plots to bring about their destruction. The story provides the excuse to delve into an ever more complex web of relationships between characters that continually reaps unexpected rewards the longer we watch.
The acting ensemble is uniformly excellent. The direction (also by Orlando) is crisp and assured. The set by Jeremy Wilhelm is pitched at such a precarious angle that it keeps the whole play off balance, in a good way. The sound (designed by C. Andrew Mayer, with assistance from Montana Johnson) continually drives the play forward, at times literally shaking the foundations under everyone’s feet. The costumes from Kelsey Glasener, just like the performances, seem perfectly fitted to each character. Even the transitions from one scene to the next are a carefully orchestrated part of the whole, with many costume changes in full view so it becomes an expected part of the routine, with growing variations as the play itself evolves.
The production and the script it rests on are both so good for so long they break my friggin’ heart. At the break for intermission, I turned to my companion and said, “I’m actually nervous. The thing is so good, it’s all gonna hang on how it ends.” The first act is so compelling, I was willing to ride it out happily all the way to the conclusion. Things that in other scripts might be detours, here they were added bonuses which fed directly into the larger concerns of the play. Examples abound, but little things like a utility worker’s plea for the goodness involved in the harnessing of water power, and the offer of comfort and ministry it conjures up in Bruce in the midst of a chaotic situation, were surprisingly moving. Another wonderful abrupt left-hand turn took place between quarterback Derek in conversation with defiant nerd Adam, when Derek’s unstoppable monologue mixing the nurturing power of tradition in combination with tales of unbridled hedonism rattled Adam for the first time since we met him. Derek possesses an easygoing confidence and conviction that life will work itself out that Adam realizes he will never attain.
It’s only when the script, and production, turn into the supervillain caper they had so adeptly avoided at every turn up until that point, when plot overwhelmed character, and brain overwhelmed heart, that the air went out of the thing. But The Sense of What Should Be holds on, tight, with both hands, right up until those closing moments. And it still leaves you with an overwhelming sense of exactly what the title promises. My disappointment comes from high expectations. Where the play begins is so much bigger than where it ends. I don’t need something to blow up, or gunshots, last minute schemes or missing bodies. If someone’s going to die, they need to do it in front of me onstage, slowly. But honestly, I’d much prefer that the synapses in someone’s brain get crossed up and their entire world view tilts on its axis, or that someone’s heart truly breaks in two. The weight and gravitational pull of this beautiful play seem to be demanding nothing less.
I want to own a copy of this play. I want to study this play. I want to one day be accused of imitating this play. More importantly, though, I want to argue with people about this play. So take all the good things I’ve said about this production, focus on them, and double them. Step away from your computer, and get your butt over to the Playwrights’ Center and see The Sense of What Should Be. Because it is a mighty fine piece of theater as is, and so, so close, to perfect.
Four and a half stars: Very Highly Recommended.