In the theater of the heart, there are earnest plays, very earnest plays and Steven Dietz. Whether he is writing about headline issues or individual tragedies, Dietz brings to the page a fervent desire to understand people in the moment when Things Go Wrong. Sometimes the work that materializes onstage is narratively gripping — Ten November, his poetic chronicle about the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, comes to mind — but in other moments, Dietz can trip over his own feet scrambling to take the editorial high ground, as he did in his docudrama about white supremacists, God’s Country. Trust, which premiered in Seattle 10 years ago and was first seen here in 1997, mercifully has no high ground; its swampy moral topography is best suited to predators, users, abusers and other things that go hump in the night — in other words, this is a story about rock musicians and their fans.
In revival, Trust generally garners favorable reviews wherever it plays, but after watching TheSpyAnts‘ new production at Hollywood Court Theater, an audience is hard-pressed to figure out why; more unsettling still, by curtain we can’t decide whether to shout ”Playwright down!“ or merely read TheSpyAnts their Miranda rights. We sense trouble early because the program, which misspells the playwright‘s name on its cover, places the story in Los Angeles — even though L.A. is never mentioned during the night and the call letters of a radio station that figures in the story are WDOV. Next comes the realization that the airbrushed and lint-rolled rocker milieu Dietz conjures is not a place anyone has likely seen outside, perhaps, a Lifetime movie of the week. From then on, the train wreck formerly known as Trust grinds onward to its utterly bland conclusion.
For the record, the play’s roundelay of scenes swirls around a young couple who live in a city not Los Angeles: Cody (Brett Hren) is a lanky rock singer on the rise, while Becca (Mary Van Luven), whom he is about to marry, is pursuing a career in publishing. We know Cody is probably not going to be the story‘s true north, because the evening opens with a long and adoring description of Becca, delivered by her wedding dressmaker, Gretchen (Marina Mouhibian). From there on, Trust’s scenes, whose titles are announced by the actors (i.e., ”Do I Really Look Like I Need To Be Told Another Story?“), unfold to deal with such commotions as Cody‘s secret love affair with a Janis Joplin–esque has-been named Leah (Darlene Mann); the story of a nebbish public-radio-station host, Roy (Greg Woodhill), and his courtship of a young Cody groupie named Holly (Jocelyn Jackson); and, added to the mix, Gretchen’s long-ago yearnings for Leah.
The story follows the growing rift between Cody, who, for some unknown reason, is obsessively jealous of his virtuous fiancee, and Becca, who is, for an equally unknown reason, completely clueless that her rock hunk is banging more than songs on the road. This is the play‘s first of many credibility problems. While the world of rock is a strange, illogical place to be sure, there’s never the slightest suggestion here of how or why Cody ever hooked up with the rather strait-laced Becca, much less why such a rising star (or anyone in their 20s, for that matter) is such a soft-spoken, clean-living nudge as he appears — one might be forgiven for initially assuming this chemistry-free pair are roommates by convenience rather than lovers.
Part of the problem is Hren‘s lack of stage presence; though he might look the part of a rocker (thanks to Mann’s costuming), his wispy line readings and shrinking-violet persona suggest a priest on the verge of retirement rather than a hitchhiker on the highway to hell. Certainly, Mann‘s hard-bitten Leah seems able to swallow this hapless soul in one gulp. (She, however, is far too young to be playing a role that calls for a woman who is at least well into her 30s.) There are times when it’s not even clear whether Cody has spoken or has merely cleared his throat; this kind of uncertainty means Hren has either forgotten his lines or doesn‘t have many — Dietz, whose dialogue fairly chokes on aphorisms (”Every kiss is a betrayal,“ ”Where you eat is trivia, who you fuck is headlines“), certainly hasn’t given Cody much to deliver.
Rock & roll has become encoded in America‘s cultural psyche as a peculiarly anarchic metaphor for egos and libidos running amok, a walpurgisnacht of free will. From Sam Shepard’s Cowboy Mouth to Denis Spedaliere‘s Vicious, the stage has been filled with stories about musicians, their hangers-on, groupies and dealers. The problem with Dietz’s representation of that outsize metaphor is that his characters seem smaller than life and their prosaic appetites those of the average Quaker. A scene in which an enraged Becca smashes a bunch of glasses as she confronts Cody with his infidelity would seem to be a veritable hall pass to a lesson in violence and eroticism, but here all that wincing, sputtering Cody appears to care about are those broken glasses. In the end we have a rock singer who seems to regard his craft as though it were a 9-to-5 job yet is surrounded by people who idolize him as a sexy messiah.
This lassitude of Dietz‘s characters finds company in Trust’s structure, which builds the play onto a framework of episodic scenes: The story‘s girls gather for beers at a nightclub to talk about what a fox Cody is, Roy has a windy monologue about dating, Cody and Leah make out in Roy’s studio — all leading to a touchy-feely moment when one of the characters comes out as a lesbian!
Director Vincent Castellanos marshals his cast competently enough across well-defined stage locales, but do we really need projected Hallmark-y images (of flowers, masks, pin cushions, the word ”Trust,“ etc.) — and not one but two photo slides beamed overhead onto gilt-framed screens? Especially since sometimes these aren‘t always in place at the right time? He has a young, attractive ensemble at his disposal, but its members need to assert themselves more decisively onstage; besides Hren, Mouhibian, who spoke with a slight accent, also poses a problem for the audience to hear. Adding to the distractions is an intrusive soundtrack that occasionally blares over their monologues. Perhaps, though, Castellanos is the perfect interpreter of Dietz’s non-menacing vision of rock & roll. He has his actors rely upon an inventory of embarrassing caressing gestures, and — in a scene where a group of the gals sit around commenting on how great the ice cream they are eating is — has them pass around a carton of something labeled ”Soy.“ Likewise, it‘s only fitting that in a reconciliation scene in which Cody shaves Becca’s legs (Dietz‘s idea of empowerment, no doubt), the rocker comments on the blood he’s just drawn, though not a drop is in sight.