To its credit, Edge Theater Company has staged a world premiere annually for the past four years, all scripts by local playwrights. Some of the productions have revealed major talent, and that’s what I thought during the first hour or so of Jeffrey Neuman’s Exit Strategies. Sure, the play’s basic premise is familiar: family members returning home after the death of a patriarch, with an outsider present to watch, provide perspective and perhaps at some point join in the family’s psychic disintegration. But these family members seemed original, funny, often mesmerizing, and you knew things would unfold unexpectedly and to entertaining effect. The outsider is a hooker, Kai, here as a friend rather than to provide sex, and she’s the epitome of eccentric cool. The protagonist is a playwright who gained some success by discarding the family name, distancing himself from his parents and developing a disinterested-observer persona, so that he comments on the action even as it unfolds around him — as if he were watching a play he intended to mine for future plots. Widowed mother Sheryl promises to be an endless fount of humor and surprise, especially as played by the peerless Emma Messenger. She’s just so odd: fuzzy, soft and befuddled, but emanating an aura of something deeply morally stained, if not downright evil.
But then Chase’s estranged sister, Rachel, enters, rigid with inexplicable rage, and we find ourselves moseying down a far-too-standard path. Dad was an abuser. Okay, we might have guessed. He sexually abused Rachel. Still listening. She knows this because, as she watched her own children playing with him some time ago, she found a submerged memory surfacing and later fleshed it out with the help of her shrink. Chase is skeptical and voices the usual skeptical arguments, fortified by a belief in his own way of dealing with their father’s abuse: forgiving the man, avoiding him while he lived, cracking jokes, drinking a lot. Maybe we do still have something of a plot here, I’m thinking, though not one as rich or interesting as the plot I’d been anticipating. I remembered the furor around the concept of recovered memory, the families torn apart, the daycare workers sent to prison on the shaky say-so of children. But the issue can’t be a plot device in itself: Some action or illumination has to come from it. Instead, the characters start speaking in long expository and self-justifying monologues, including Sheryl, who reveals that her befuddlement stems from her inability to face the truth. Well, that and a lot of prescription drugs. Now Chase is rocked back on his heels as Kai provides comfort. Truthfully, middle-aged-guys-having-identity-crises stories just aren’t that interesting — even if the middle-aged guy is as saturnine and amusing as Chase.
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It helps that, under the direction of Kate Marie Folkins, the cast is so good. Start with Messenger, who owns the stage with her squint-eyed secretiveness, and whose talents as an actor mesh perfectly with the intriguingly ambiguous role Neuman has written. It feels like a serious loss when she leaves the stage toward the play’s end, and like a dramaturgical mistake that she has no place in the denouement. Andrew Uhlenhopp does a fine job with Chase’s drunken, highly sarcastic and somewhat over-the-top bonhomie. And with her long, creamy-white legs, Missy Moore creates one of the most stylish and original whores I’ve seen, so I really didn’t mind that much when she revealed the requisite heart of gold. But why did she have to devolve into an ordinary, cuddly confidante by the end, conspicuously slipping off those needle-spiked shoes? Couldn’t she at least have kept her style? As Rachel, Emily Paton Davies is forced to play one sullen, angry note throughout, and though she does it well, it seems a waste of her considerable talent.
None of which makes Exit Strategies a bad play. In fact, it’s a terrific play for almost half its length, and even when the plot disintegrates, the characters continue to be interesting, the dialogue smart and those monologues passionate and well written. There’s an intelligence and a sophistication here that promise good things to come.
Exit Strategies, presented by the Edge Theater Company through December 27, 1560 Teller Street, Lakewood, 303-232-0363, theedgetheater.com.