Carson Alexander, Bob D'Haene, and Katelin Wilcox. Photo by Mark Krieger.
BOTTOM LINE: Viewer Discretion Advised has an intriguing plot/subject line but needs more editing/work; its characters are played with a bit too broad a brush to be believable.
Ed Stevens is a Kennedy Center award-winning playwright so you know he's got some worth. However, Viewer Discretion Advised must be in its early stages because it seems a bit under developed and lags for a good two thirds of the running time.
Its subject is intriguing: "How Far Is Too Far?" is posted on the play's webpage. And it's a great question - how far can a possible psychopath push a normal every day human being and get away with it? What buttons can he play with until Norm (the name of that "normal" every day human character) makes choices seemingly on his own that are not good? This acclaimed playwright has concocted a captivating plot that boggles the mind and keeps the audience guessing.
The protagonist, Norm, has picked up Bud, a stranger, on the shoulder of the highway out of the good Samaritan values he upholds, offering to take Bud wherever he needs to go since it's on Norm's way. But first they stop at Norm's house which is where all the action of the play takes place and where I have a hard time buying them staying there.
Norm, played by Carson Alexander, really tries hard to come across as a regular guy just a tad uncomfortable but powering through the situation. However, the repeated choices not to just take Bud on his way are baffling. I struggled with him allowing this stranger to sit in his house, drink his beer, comment on his family photos, urge that the two of them just hang for one more beer and say, "she can wait; what? Does she have you pussy whipped?" as a bit far-fetched for anyone with a backbone and the least bit of healthy paranoia. Bud, played by Bob D'Haene, even mentions Norm's possible paranoia and plays off it, saying, "What, don't you trust me? I'm hurt by that." To which any real "normal" every day human that I know would say, "Well, no, frankly, I don't and let's get you on your way."
The issue is that Stevens has painted Norm as an unlikable and un-"root-for-him"-able, wimpy, indecisive, young boy of a man who lacks confidence and has deep secret fantasies about hurting his boss and others who he feels has thwarted him in life. And Stevens has asked us to buy that Bud has the magic powers to pull these fantasies out of Norm easily for us to see. So the question is: is it the writing that causes the action lay out this way or is it the players who are unable to navigate the nuances of this "carefully mapped out" road map without the rehearsal time or capabilities to play what Stevens has "carefully" written?
My opinion is its a bit of both. Until Anne, played by Katelin Wilcox, finally enters the action almost an hour into the 90 minute play (which, I think, is yet another problem Stevens may want to deal with), I didn't care for either Norm or Bud and I wondered why I was sitting there watching it. Wilcox has ease and grace in her role that exudes the confidence Anne has and brings a much more likable character on stage. She even makes Bud seem more likable as their chemistry is palpable and clear, elevating D'Haene's performance. The anti-chemistry and conflict between Norm and Bud beforehand is muddy and a bit painful to watch, but somehow it comes alive after Anne joins the story in person, which seems to be because of Wilcox's ability as an actress to truly be with her fellow actors on stage, who in turn are then able as well by association.
The bottom line (in other words from before) is: the play just needs more work. There are a lot of very intelligent people working on it, but they are somehow mismatched and parts are falling through the cracks.
Regardless, if you want to see a play in its early stages before it goes somewhere big, which is possibly where Stevens can take it, get in on the ground level with this production.
(Viewer Discretion Advised plays at The Kraine Theater, 85 East 4th Street, through October 2nd. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm. Tickets are $18.00. To purchase tickets and for more show info visit www.viewerdiscretionadvisedtheplay.com.)