“The Long Shrift” at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (Closed on Saturday August 23, 2014)

Written by Robert Boswell
Directed by James Franco
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

Playwright Robert Boswell has determined to tackle difficult themes in his new “The Long Shrift” currently running at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater: when a crime is committed, who is the innocent and who is the guilty? Does the justice system work? What are the long term effects on the accused and the victimized?

At the age of eighteen, Richard (Scott Haze) attends a party where he sees classmate Beth (Ahna O’Reilly) who, he believes, is showing an interest in him personally and sexually. Beth invites him to a bedroom where Richard attests Beth seduces him. Beth has been drinking and admits to making advances toward Richard. However, at some point during the tryst, Beth claims she said “No” and asked Richard to stop. After telling her boyfriend who is waiting in a car outside, he strikes her, calls the police, and Richard is charged with rape, convicted of that crime, and sentenced for a ten year term in the most violent prison in Texas.

The balance of the plot is just as complicated. Beth recants her charges; Richard is released from prison after five years and returns to his family’s new home (after an extended stay in Florida) where they have relocated after losing their original home. Beth decides to visit Richard there to make amends for her accusation and to get an apology from Richard. This unlikely situation drives the remainder of the plot and the ending of the play is about as odd as one could imagine. To resolve their differences, Beth suggests:

BETH: But … We could meet every day. At dinner, let’s say. For however long it takes — a year, three years, five years — until we’re okay. I’m not talking about sex or sharing a house, but finding a way out together. There has to be some way out.

Prior to the ending there is the requisite dream sequence with Richard’s father and dead mother Sarah (Ally Sheedy) and the flashback of the injuring of a raccoon on the highway which Richard’s (then alive) mother bludgeons to death with a tire iron. There is also a high school reunion that (in parallel fashion) Beth seduces Richard to attend which further intensifies the moral ambiguity of these characters and their actions.

The ensemble cast seems uncomfortable on stage and at times it is difficult to hear them. Director James Franco does not seem to have given the cast the direction they need to enliven Mr. Boswell’s script with authentic energy and commitment. But Mr. Boswell needs to take some responsibility for this lackluster performance: he has not created characters the audience can believe in and has created an unnecessarily convoluted plot. This makes is difficult for the actors (especially actors unfamiliar with the stage) to create authentic characters and deliver believable performances.

Beth tracks Richard down after his release and finds him in Florida. Later, she has a conversation with Richard’s father Henry (Brian Lally) about her guilt and the meaning of “Long Shrift” the name of Richard’s motel in Florida:

BETH: I could see him from my window. I kept wondering, How much harm have I done?
[Then there is a conversation about ‘long shrift’ and how it differs from ‘short shrift.’]
BETH: What would that make the long shrift?
HENRY: I guess it’d be like…when the things that used to make you happy become the opposite, become the things that break your heart.
BETH: Can it work the other way around?
HENRY: What do you mean?
BETH: Can the things that break your heart become the things that save you?

Unfortunately, Mr. Boswell has not answered these important enduring questions in “The Long Shrift.” And the current production does not supply the audience enough incentive to grapple with those questions on their own. The play has a relatively long run. To echo Beth’s sentiment, perhaps there is “some way out” of the production’s current ennui before August 23rd.