It’s not been a good year for Manhattan Theater Club’s City Center series, which included Zoe Kazan’s dramatically anemic We Live Here and Molly Smith Metzler’s amateurish Close Up Space. If Matt Charman’s Regrets, directed by Carolyn Cantor, is the best of the bunch, it’s only because it is raising the bar from a subterranean perch.
Charman introduces us to a rundown motel near Reno through the arrival of the practically mute Caleb Farley (Ansel Elgort). He’s an 18-year-old fleeing his life, job and wife back in New York in 1954, seeking succor in the quiet cabins (designed with care by Rachel Hauck) run by the ornery Mrs. Duke (Adriane Lenox). Men come to Mrs. Duke’s to hide out for long enough to become official state residents of Nevada and quickly facilitate a divorce.
Caleb’s motley mix of neighbors includes several men at various stages of self-awareness, though all suffer from a serious case of arrested development. There’s the sympathetic Alvin Novotny (Richard Topol), a pet shop owner from Queens; impulsive Gerald Driscoll (Lucas Caleb Rooney), an ex-Army sergeant eager to dump the wife he married while in the Philippines; and Ben Clancy (Brian Hutchison), the group’s anchor. He’s stayed on at Mrs. Duke’s motel for three years since the dissolution of his marriage.
Also making periodic, if uninitiated, visits to this “dude ranch” is Chrissie (Alexis Bledel), a townie with nowhere to go and nothing to lose who prostitutes herself to bring home some extra bucks.
Charman’s labored plot kicks into gear when it’s revealed that the reticent Caleb has headed west to escape more than just an unhappy starter marriage. I won’t reveal just what secrets Caleb harbors, but Charman’s revelations don’t carry as much currency as he thinks they do. In fact, they’re probably only worth their weight in 1950s-era dollars.
If his plot feels stale, his ear for dialogue is more impressive. With the help of a dramaturge, he could probably create a more gripping work.
Cantor is able to wrangle solid performances from most of her ensemble. Lenox bucks clichés at every turn, and Driscoll and Topol offer a nice point-counterpoint as id and superego, respectively. Elgort, in his New York stage debut, underplays his part too much. I’m not sure whether it’s a deliberate choice or just due to inexperience, but he doesn’t justify enough of Caleb’s interests or stances, so when we learn his deep dark secrets, they don’t seem to fit.
Similarly, the awkward Bledel remains unbelievable throughout the show. There’s no grit or guff to her, and the actress’ mush mouth and lack of stage presence ultimately take the audience right out of the story and the play’s period setting.
As always, Hutchison does his best to compensate for his co-stars’ deficits. This sterling actor never makes a false move, embodying Charman’s seemingly irreconcilable ideals of masculinity and sensitivity. Here’s hoping that the actor gets a play worthier of his considerable talents sometime soon.
Through April 29, NY City Center Stage I, 131 W. 55th St. 212-581-1212, www.nycitycenter.org; $80.
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