LOWELL - Under artistic director Charles Towers, Merrimack Repertory Theatre has demonstrated a commendable dedication to developing new work. Even more commendably, the company does this not just by presenting premieres, but by the less flashy and often more valuable means of staging second productions of plays premiered elsewhere.
That's the case with "The Missionary Position," a political satire by Keith Reddin that debuted last season, to mixed reviews, at Pittsburgh's City Theatre. Now that company's artistic director, Tracy Brigden, has brought it to Merrimack with the same cast and design team but, Reddin has said, with a commitment to exploring the play's darker side as well as its comedy.
The result is, at best, still a work in progress. Reddin seems to have plenty of ideas about politics, religious zealotry, hypocrisy, and greed, and even more ideas about how those things intersect in the petri dish of morality that is a modern presidential campaign. But he has still not quite figured out how to put his ideas in action onstage, or how to make his characters seem like more than caricatures in service to his arguments.
"The Missionary Position" centers on a conservative Christian named Roger who is attached, in ways that are never quite clear, to an offstage presidential candidate's campaign. In a series of scenes amusingly set in Roger's hotel rooms around the country (nothing in Gianni Downs's sharply bland set changes from room to room, except the picture over the bed), he spars with the campaign finance director, Neil; conspires with a dippy rich supporter, Julie; and preaches to a succession of hotel maids, all played by the same actress.
It's an adequate setup, and Reddin gets off some zingy, if predictable, lines. (Roger: "We can't have criminals on the staff." Julie: "Well then, who would do all the work?") But all the characters are stuck in an uneasy limbo, somewhere between the cartoons you'd expect in an all-out satire and the more complex humans you'd want in a full-fledged play.
Beyond that, sometimes the story just doesn't make sense. We never understand why Roger talks endlessly at every maid - or, more to the point, why they stand there and listen. And we certainly don't understand why he reveals a couple of deep secrets from his past to the shallow, heedless Julie; especially after she betrays one of them to the national media, why on earth would he keep confiding in this woman?
It's also hard to tell who any of these people really are. Tony Bingham plays Roger, who apparently grew up in South Carolina, with a fast-talking, urban edge that seems utterly contradictory to those evangelical Southern roots. At Sunday's press performance, Bingham was clearly suffering from unusual hoarseness, but even in good health he would seem mismatched to this part. On the other hand, Reddin gives the character so many inconsistencies and opacities that it's hard to imagine any actor turning him into a real person.
As Julie, Tami Dixon doesn't even try for reality; she's a screeching, over-the-top nightmare in atrocious pink tweed. That can actually be pretty amusing sometimes, but it gets old - and it doesn't make Roger's trust in her any more persuasive. Jeffrey Carpenter, meanwhile, gives the cynical Neil an appropriate undercurrent of weary rage; it would be fun to see more of him. And Rebecca Harris manages to imbue each maid with a distinct personality, even when her scenes with Roger cross the fine line from absurdity to unreality.
The title, by the way, is never actually explained - there's certainly no sex, and though Roger is some kind of missionary, we never quite know what his position is or what we're to make of it. As a clever-sounding but ultimately meaningless phrase, "The Missionary Position" is an all-too-apt summation of a play that apparently wants to mean more than it can say.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.