“We still ply our trades nobly,” said the singer to the songwriter. Or maybe it was the songwriter to the singer. I’m not sure; that bit of dialogue was roughly when I checked out of Ari Roth’s Oh, the Innocents. ’Cause maybe you’ve met struggling D.C. performers who say things like that to each other—in casual conversation, without a hint of irony—as they get ready to turn out the lights in their Capitol Hill one-bedroom. But I sure haven’t.
Don’t get me wrong: I’d be the last to argue that effective theater requires documentarian realism. (What would become of the Broadway musical, for heaven’s sake, or of Tony Kushner, or of Caryl Churchill?) But Innocents, a “play with music” about wide-eyed locals feeling their way through the illusion-shattering territories of marriage and the music biz, traffics moment to moment in specifics. It trades on addresses and occupations that invite assumptions, on references to Adams Morgan coffeehouses and P Street blues dives, Georgetown parking and Potomac McMansions presided over by the trophy wives of Wizards investors. And in a show that invests so much in recognizable places and familiar types, Roth’s naive young marrieds ultimately seem as unlikely as a self-effacing politician.
There are purist artists, to be sure, and everyone’s got to be an innocent at some point, if only so the Green Party can continue to exist. But consider Jeremy and Betsy, Roth’s idealistic twosome. They pour their hearts into their music by night, surrendering a little of their souls each day doing the unfulfilling work that pays the bills: He teaches piano to rich brats at 60 bucks an hour, she edits the crashingly dull prose of stuffed-shirt Hill types, and “Don’t bring it home” is their mantra when either feels sullied by the banal messes of the real world. Before their lives are upended by disturbing encounters with a student’s lonely mother and a predatory record producer, they exist in a naive, bohemian utopia; they imagine themselves uncorrupted, picture their relationship as a purer, finer model than most, worship each other as perfect. They are, in short, insufferable.
Improbable, too, despite the efforts of the usually engaging Peter Wylie and the likable newcomer Liz Mamana. The relative naturalism of the actors’ manner only makes the elevated cadences of the characters’ early domestic exchanges seem less like actual conversation. And how is it that these two grad-school hothouse flowers have spent years caffeinating at Tryst and gigging at the One Step Down without wising up a little?
Likelier, though no less unconvincing, is the back-and-forth between Jeremy and his longtime buddy Josh. (You have met Eric Sutton’s compromised, compromising Josh before, at every frat party and group-house kegger ever held, and he’s no more appealing this time around—not because he’s a sellout with a corporate-tool job, but because his gregarious guyishness is so forced.) In their regular coffee confabs, Roth serves up a Mamet-style barrage of half-finished questions and ill-articulated thoughts—everyday interaction that’s convincingly fragmented, yes, but still somehow not quite real conversation. The disconnect, at least in part, is in that testosterone heartiness; Jeremy and Josh sound like sensitive guys laboring not to sound quite so sensitive, like philosophy majors nervously reassuring themselves about their masculinity.
And it’s partly that their interaction, like Jeremy and Betsy’s, is less a reflection of life than a rhetorical scaffolding upon which Roth hangs the ideas he wants us to examine (sophisticated ones, admittedly): about disillusionment and sadder-wiser survival, about the innocence we outgrow and the possibility that having outgrown it, we are somehow smaller. Roth has long since proved himself a savvy dramatist, and he’s employing considerable craft here, but Innocents is as much discourse as play, and its ideas are just that: arguments, observations, positions, analysis, all issuing from the mouths of characters who seem to exist merely to give them voice.
Roth shepherds the proceedings deftly enough (though a more distanced director might have pushed him to tighten up what feels like a padded second act), and Theater J’s production is in most respects professional, even slick. (The awkward musical amplification that marred opening night has presumably been ironed out by now.) No one’s a terribly compelling singer, but then Roth’s wan, meandering tunes are hardly inspiring material.
Amid all this unmoving display, two things stand out: Daniel Conway’s spare three-tiered set, with its soaring vertical lines and its gliding modular panels, is one; it speaks eloquently of the layers of any single life, of the separate planes of any two, and of the overlapping that so often proves our undoing. Lucy Newman-Williams’ “pampered, miserable” soccer mom Alex is the other: Smart and skittish, chic and seductive and a little stir-crazy, brittle and vulnerable and manipulative and plastic by turns, she’s the only personality onstage who seems wholly real, who inspires anything other than exasperation.
By the time things wind down, Betsy and Jeremy have watched their perfect little world crumble, and they’ve begun to put it back together as best they can. Both of them have stumbled, but they’ve caught each other. And now they’re trying to recapture some of the innocence they’ve lost—without forgetting the lessons they learned in the losing. If the show were working the way Roth surely intends it to, we’d celebrate their coming of age, mourn the universality of their experience, perhaps even come away feeling a little hopeful about the prospects of honor and decency in a selfish era. But the preposterousness of their early naivete means that long before his two lovers awaken to the knowledge of the good and the evil within themselves, we’ve stopped caring about what they learn—or whether they ever do. In the end, it’s Alex who engages our affections and our sympathy, Alex whose future we wonder and worry a little about as the lights go down.
Strange, that: In a play about the destruction of virtue and the rebuilding of trust, the one indelible character is the one who represents the seductions of nihilism, the appeal of relativism, the allure of despair. No, on second thought: In our country, in our time, that’s not the least bit strange after all.CP