With a crackling and clever script by Dani Vetere and a couple of pleasantly understated performances, "Hadrian's Wall," one of the NY Fringe Festival's opening salvos this year, almost holds its own alongside other dramas that grapple with academic scandal. The potential, however, gets caught in the undertow of choppy direction and a less than convincing central performance. The result is underwhelming.
Ramona (Laura Siner) is a reclusive, perpetually barefoot archaeologist of Roman Britain, and is the target of an ethics investigation over alleged improprieties while on a dig. She's represented in this matter by David (Eric Rolland), an ex-fiancé who (finally) earned a law degree. Though he has ostensibly moved on, married and matured, the now-solid David still harbors misgivings about their breakup. This manifests itself through continued doting on the beleaguered scholar, by way of Chinese takeout and unsolicited advice in every category.
Add to this stasis the anything-but-static Amy (Rebecca White), a librarian/grad student/housekeeping hybrid with a few other motives in mind, and we have a compact cast ready to say interesting things about things that are interesting. It's a taut and engaging script. Vetere has peppered her play with pathos and humor in equal, effective doses. It's not without its gaps, though, and unfortunately the production winds up accentuating too many of them.
Even though the whole trio has an abundance of pithy quips, retorts and volleys, not to mention dramatic arcs steep enough with which to build a coliseum, it's Rolland and White who make the most of them. They land every joke in the play without trumpeting the setups or predigesting the punch lines, and the effect is that of people with brains conversing in an entertaining way. As the play climaxes, however, and revelations compound, the casual manner that has served them so well chains them down, making it harder for them to rise with the stakes.
Siner, for her part, seems so determined to hit every operative word she's given, so eager to make the audience understand each key phrase, that it all comes off as something of an overwrought blur. It's less of a performance, really, and more like an actor's highlighted script personified, with notes in the margins and underscores in red ink. This compromises her character's competence and sincerity.
Director Stephen Cedars keeps the action brisk when it isn't forced, but his staging of one of the plot's central half-twists, the sexual collision of an unlikely pair, does him no favors. If you wonder why everyone stays anchored to a rickety and cluttered wooden table for much of the play, it's probably so Cedars can justify what he hopes will be a classic, steamy consummation upon it. Never mind the fact that a weathered but infinitely more comfortable couch is mere feet away, as is an offstage bedroom. If something unapologetically animalistic was what he had in mind, the floor would have made as much sense and been in full view thanks to the Connelly Theatre's ample sightlines.
Sightlines don't enter the equation somehow when we consider the play's most important prop. Once presented, it remains swaddled in a towel, and it's hard to excuse why this need be. Everybody handles, examines or transports it, and it defies common sense to think at least two of them wouldn't unwrap the thing and look at it. If we had been given a gander, were they afraid an antiquarian in the third row might reflexively scoff that it wasn't real?
Cedars does sculpt the flashback scenes wonderfully well, though, with elegantly simple tweaks to sound and costume. They come late into the proceedings but are instantly clear and prove to be Siner's best work. All the elements blend seamlessly here, and Vetere's writing has the same edge, but with a more temperate, believable tenderness. Mere scenes are elevated into "vignettes," if you will, and one wishes the same simplicity and focus had been employed throughout the play as a whole. "Hadrian's Wall" would have been ten times better if so, and given most of the talent on display here, there is every reason it should have been.
Too many scenes conclude with sharp blackouts and musical interludes, and by play's end they have come at you with almost strobe light frequency. Most of these scene changes could be eliminated in favor of sustaining the stage action. Right now they just make the play feel longer than it is. Though only about 90 minutes, the current pace makes "Hadrian's Wall" feel at least a half hour longer. As the blackouts pile up, audiences are apt to feel like a Roman centurion on the brick line when constructing the play's namesake:
"What? Another one? Isn't this thing finished yet?"
"Hadrian's Wall" runs through August 19 as part of the 16th annual New York Fringe Festival at the Connelly Theatre, located at 220 East 4th Street in Manhattan. For information or tickets call 866-468-7619 or visit www.hadrianswallatfringenyc.com