• Evan Fulks

2.5 stars
out of 5
J&J Productions
@ Raleigh Ensemble Players
Through Dec. 17

Director Joshua Benjamin and actors John Honeycutt and Jess Jones find themselves in the best of theatrical company this week. Would that that were better news than it is.

For after I witnessed two of the region’s most renowned actors humbled by the demands of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at PlayMakers Rep the night before, this upstart company’s production of Romulus Linney’s last play, Love Drunk, similarly seemed a theatrical puzzle only partially solved by last Sunday night in Raleigh Ensemble Players’ Fayetteville Street theater space.

By now Honeycutt is certainly no stranger to the independent theater set, and Jones has been quickly assembling a respectable portfolio of roles over the past two seasons. A wildcat production at this point wasn’t a bad move for either artist. And, truth to tell, after I read the first half of Linney’s script the week before, I could see these actors in these roles.

But on one level this tale of two ill-met and addictive personalities—an aged, solitary homebuilder and a young, unstable woman he’s just picked up in a mountain-town cafe—has nearly as many emotional switchbacks and plot twists as Albee’s famously imposing text. In Linney’s play, a variation on Ibsen’s cautionary work The Master Builder, both Wilbur (Honeycutt) and Karen (Jones) repeatedly realize that the stories each other is telling them—about their past, their present and their true intentions—keep not adding up. Two strangers who came to a room for a sexual encounter—if not something a bit darker—are forced to reassess one another. Then they have to reassess again.

You get the picture. As these characters lead us through two interpersonal labyrinths, an early, Hitchcock-like suspense is supplanted by a more profound, existential one as our sense of Wilbur and Karen’s downward personal trajectories fill in.

But when this director and his actors haven’t finished constructing characters who fully and believably embody this many contradictions, or pose enough of a credible threat to one another, that suspense is really compromised. I hate to report that under Benjamin’s direction, Karen’s shrill collection of tics, interpersonal tripwires and ADD symptoms in Sunday night’s performance didn’t ever fully coalesce into a coherent, organic whole. Yes, she clearly isn’t the easiest character to figure out, and the director and actor both required courage to take her on. But considerable work remained for the performance I saw.

Wilbur’s own enigmas seemed similarly underdeveloped as well, and in need of further analysis and exploration. Additionally, the production’s too-brisk pacing shortchanged moments of suspense and realization for both actors throughout the evening.

As their aliases are slowly—or abruptly—stripped away, we gradually realize just how bad an idea it was for these two damaged people to wind up together. Then we brace for the further damage each is capable of doing to themselves and one another.

But for that to truly happen, we have to believe we’re in the presence of two complete characters. We have to believe that Karen and Wilbur are both by now congenital liars, sometimes to each other, sometimes to themselves, because their truths have nearly killed them—and may have actually already killed the ones they’ve loved. Before their twisted tale can possibly make sense to us, it must make deep sense—indeed, the only possible sense—to them.

Unfortunately, that part of this theatrical house still looked to be under construction on Sunday night. Our advice to all concerned? Decent start. Now keep building.