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Seduction is as seduction does in Norman Allen’s sex-and-crucifixion dramedy In the Garden. The playa compelling blend of wit, adultery, and C.S. Lewis-esque philosophizingconcerns four urban sophisticates whose lives are upended by a charismatic teenage boy.
This cherubic lad, first spotted seminude and surrounded by books on his married philosophy professor’s bed, is a world-class flirt. His name is Gabe, presumably after the angelic trumpeter, so it’s fitting that, as played by Steven Eskay, he seems like a slightly overripe choirboy.
But appearances can be deceiving, of course. Gabe is hardly an innocent. He’s just slept with his prof, John (Michael Kramer), so he won’t actually have to read the great thinkers he’s now skimming so blithely. “Life is a fake, life is real, life is just an idea,” snorts Gabe as John emerges from a postcoital shower. “God is the creator, God is dead….God is only a vice-god standing in for the greater Mother-Father who is too complicated for us to comprehend. Are they all so…stupid?”
What Gabe finds annoying, it turns out, is the books’ reflection of a cacophony that surrounds him all the time. “Don’t you hear it?” he wonders. “Like little, sharp fingers picking, driving into your brain?”
John, alarmed by the question, parts with the one book on his shelves that Gabe finds “quiet”the Bibleonly to be unnerved when he later discovers the boy living homeless in a nearby park, apparently in emulation of the poverty of Christ. “I will silence the world,” Gabe tells him. “The noise will fade into nothing….I’m going to disappear.” John naturally worries not only that his own indiscretion will be exposed by this development, but also that he is somehow responsible for the startling slide of a weird but possibly brilliant student.
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Gabe has a similarly disquieting effect on others. When John confides his dalliance to his Machiavellian friend Walter (played by Jerry Richardson as a close cousin of Fish from TV’s Ally McBeal), Walter at first sees only a business transaction. But once Walter has offered Gabe cash to be a plaything in the ongoing affair he’s conducting with John’s wife, Muriel (tart-tongued Amy McWilliams), both he and his lover find themselves captivated by the scripture-quoting hustler. Walter’s usually cynical fiancée, Lizzie (sharp, amusing Rachel Gardner), also melts in the presence of the boy, though not sexually. She contents herself with bringing him sandwiches in the park and discussing “the music of the spheres.”
Allen’s writing is best in the evening’s first half, when the issues raised by the attraction of these worldly folks to the Bible-obsessed teenager are kept slightly out-of-focus. The patter, while bright and witty, is also subtly distancing, especially in some nifty transitional sequences in which Allen playfully lets his characters conduct two contradictory conversations at once through overlapping dialogue. Actually, the device is more than playful; the author is tweaking structure to add tension and to draw your attention to the similarities in seemingly disparate flirtations.
It helps that in exploring the seductive power of youth, sex, domination, education, and money in Gabe’s various relationships, the author keeps the kid ambiguous as an object of desire. He’s also ambiguous as a character, with a backstory that proves as unreliable as the bio offered by the more mercenary but similarly captivating bisexual youth in John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation.
Gabe is a subtly subversive figure, whether he’s trading Song of Solomon quotations with John in a quasi-orgasmic rush or justifying the sexual pleasure he gives in ways that will doubtless prove as startling for theater patrons as they are for his fellow characters (“How better to follow Christ’s teachings than to prostitute yourself?”). Some of his debating points (and John’s, as well) could use some sharpening, however. It feels sometimes as if the playwright is skimming over philosophical arguments nearly as glibly as his main character did in the play’s opening scene. Still, for the play to work, what’s most important is that the audience finds Gabe appealingwe need to be seduced by him, tooand with Eskay keeping the character soft, malleable, and ever-so-slightly indistinct, it’s easy enough for that to happen at Signature.
Until, that is, the playwright opts to make Gabe a more literal embodiment of New Testament stories late in the second act. It happens right after a wonderfully theatrical moment in which overlapping dialogue lets all the adult characters put their indiscretions on the table at once, laying waste to marriages and friendships and exposing long-buried insecurities.
The scene fairly bristles with biblical and real-world implications, but there’s no way out of it dramatically. More to the point, it effectively ends Gabe’s usefulness to the story. When this charismatic, ambiguous, touched-by-God teenager is everyone’s guilty secret, he is a terrific catalyst, but once everything’s out in the open, the author has to decide whether In the Garden’s object of universal desire is a worldly hustler or an otherworldly savior, and either choice neutralizes Gabe. For theatrical purposes, the boy gets his wish: He disappears.
That said, the playwright elects to have him go out showily. And with an assist or two from Nancy Schertler’s ethereal lighting, Daniel DeRaey’s staging manages a graceful shift from a play about passion to a passion play. The director has more fun, though, when his chief responsibility is to keep actors and ideas ricocheting around James Kronzer’s airily symmetrical urban setting. The performers obviously have more fun then, tooand so does the audience. CP