(Costa Mesa, CA) January, 2014 – Is it possible for a person to love two people at the same time? Is it possible to love one person forever, or is monogamy an outdated concept? Is love a spiritual bonding between two souls, or is it just a chemical reaction between compatible pheromones? These are important questions, especially in a generation where divorce remains to be above 50% and threatens to increase as time goes on. Zoe Kazan seemed to be a potentially ideal creative candidate to delve into these questions—and possible answers—with her latest work, Trudy and Max in Love, which is making its world premiere at South Coast Repertory; Kazan not only has an impressive background as a Broadway actress, she is also an accomplished screenwriter and playwright. With these accolades and talents, as well as being thirty years old, Kazan could shed some light regarding the problems her generation faces when it comes to love and relationships. But the final results are shockingly unsatisfactory. Zoe Kazan’s amateurish, shallow script, the lackluster acting, and Lila Neugebauer’s sterile, anemic direction makes this show the most disappointing production during SCR’s 50th Anniversary.
It is a simple set up. Published authors Trudy (Aya Cash) and Max (Michael Weston) meet for the first time in a Brooklyn writer’s room. She’s happily married to a journalist who travels a lot; he has a girlfriend in Los Angeles that has “some problems.” They both click as friends, but there’s also a sexual attraction that builds. Seemingly romantic feelings start to build for both parties. Finally, they have an affair that changes both of their lives forever, especially for Aya since she starts questioning whether the idea of long-term love between two people (aka a monogamous relationship) is actually possible. Accompanying Max and Trudy on this road of self-discovery are “The Other Man” (Tate Ellington) and “The Other Woman” (Celeste Den), where the actors portray different characters throughout this story.
The key lynchpin to this play’s failure as a dramatic narrative is its overall story structure. An earlier version of the play’s title was Trudy and Max in Love or That Forever Feeling (an affair in twenty-four scenes). The entire two hour and fifteen work is broken apart into 22 scenes (I guess that explains the title change); according to the theatrical notes, this was done in the effort to create an episodic feeling of a memory play, where it “is evocative of how someone might remember the events that comprise the story of a relationship, recalling pieces of conversations or fragments of a shared moment.” A very unique approach to this topic, but in the effort to break the narrative into so many scenes, the overall rhythm of the story becomes less episodic and more choppy, inconsistent, and unpleasantly jarring. Because of this erratic structure, the lead characters—on the page and on the stage—lose their romantic chemistry, resulting in the question as far as why these characters like each other in the first place. There are scenes between Trudy and her therapist, but her ranting, profane-laced monologues don’t delve into her unhappiness; the dialogue just hovers out in the quiet space of the theatre. It is all emotion, no dramatic context. There is no depth to Trudy and Max, especially with regard to their dialogue, which demonstrates such lack of realistic substance that the script seems to be a rough draft rather than the final product. The characters are talking at each other, not communicating to each other, resulting in the overall story falling apart extremely fast. And it is stunning that a seasoned screenwriter, actress, and playwright like Kazan—who is exposed to good, realistic dialogue throughout her career—would create such embarrassingly wooden dialogue and cardboard characters, making it painful to watch.
What intensifies the whole unpleasant experience even more is Laura Jellinek’s sparse, minimalist white stage, which was supposed to help with the stream-of-consciousness of the scene changes. Instead, it isolates the characters and the audience even more. And Lila Neugebauer’s direction is puzzling where the pacing and timing of the action actually slows as the play progresses. The lack of stage and textual chemistry between the actors could have been guided by the director’s expert hands. Instead, the blocking and interaction was so haphazard that it seemed like an early rehearsal was being performed, not an opening weekend show.
The primary victims to Kazan’s incomplete script are the actors, and sadly, Cash’s Trudy is the most tragic fatality. Her scenes with Weston are awkward and artificial; there is no progression of a relationship going on during their scenes together. Both characters chat and try to bond, but their line readings are extremely one note and flat; it felt like a first-time script reading than a performance. And Cash’s efforts to shock by muttering profanity at certain times makes it seem as though Trudy (or Kazan) was watching too many episodes of Sex and the City; it doesn’t fit with the character at all. Cash struggles to grasp the character’s conflict and guilt, not because of lack of talent, but because the character is not fleshed out in the script. And when Trudy suffers an emotional meltdown regarding the consequences of their actions, Cash’s performance is extremely forced and unrealistic.
Weston fares slightly better than Cash. A seasoned actor of film and television, such as his guest performances on Burn Notice, House, and especially Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Weston is dynamic in character roles and it’s a pleasure to see him in a lead performance…if only he was in a different play. His comic timing works in his scenes with Tate Ellington, who, unfortunately, is forced to weakly play the male caricatures (rather than characters) in the script that range from a stereotypical slacker to a clueless therapist, as well as playing a man who appears to be a bad imitation of Quentin Tarantino. However, Weston’s scenes with Cash are the crux of the entire play and even a talented actor like Weston can’t find the missing pieces to this confusing jigsaw puzzle.
If there is one saving grace, it is Celeste Den’s portrayals of the many characters she portrays. Den has proven that she has both the stage presence and comedic timing with her South Coast Repertory appearances in last season’s Chinglish and the amazing Golden Anniversary season opener Death of a Salesman. It was a pleasure to see Den in a more visible role, or roles in the case of Trudy and Max. She shows maternal poignancy in a silent role of a mother discretely nursing her infant child while Max and Trudy converse. Her comedic talents steal the scenes hands-down when she portrays Rochelle, a sex-starved, predatory cougar who tries to seduce any male writer that enters the writer’s room for the first time. And she also displays a combination of tenderness and vulnerability as Trudy’s friend Christine, who helps pick up the pieces of her friend's destroyed life. These diverse portrayals really highlight Den’s discipline as an artist, especially working with a flawed script, and hopefully, SCR will continue to cast her in larger roles as time goes on.
South Coast Repertory has five world premieres during this golden anniversary season. Carla Ching’s brilliant Fast Company was an excellent example of how three-dimensional characters and sharp dialogue drive a story, not just using gimmicky structure experimentation. Although Trudy and Max in Love was a complete disappointment, hopefully Kazan’s next theatrical endeavor will truly utilize her creative talents. The remaining upcoming three—Gregory S. Moss’s Reunion (3/9-30, 2014), Samuel D. Hunter’s Rest (3/28-4/27, 2014), and a TBA World Premiere (4/14-5/15, 2014)—will hopefully contain the same kind of dramatic magic as Fast Company possesses, ending SCR’s Golden Anniversary with a bang and some style.
Peter A. Balaskas is a journalist, fiction writer, editor, and voice over artist.
Trudy and Max in Love opened January 5-26, 2014
655 Town Center Drive,
Costa Mesa, CA 92628-2197
Photos by Debora Robinson