An artist behaving badly is a familiar theatrical trope. The challenge for a playwright is to create characters who can offer a new perspective, something Anastasia Townsend doesn't quite pull off in "Sub-Zero," which is having its world premiere at the Factory Theatre.
The drama follows Fenton (Chuck Schwager), a painter and professor whose erratic behavior, including panhandling for change and bedding a succession of young artist's models, is part of an effort to spark his waning creativity as well as a manifestation of mental illness. Over the long term, his lack of control has led to a divorce from his wife, Lois (Jean Sheikh), an art history professor, and an awkward relationship with his grown son Sean (Joe Orrigo), a budding actor. Fenton's latest conquest is Claire (Lisa Caron Driscoll), a coffee-shop employee who is emotionally adrift and decides that being Fenton's model and muse will bring meaning to her life as well as inspiration to his. She then starts seeing Sean at the same time, not realizing she's dating both son and father. Fenton uses this against them later.
Motivation, not surprisingly, becomes muddied as Townsend shifts responsibility for the seduction from Fenton to Claire and then back to Fenton until it's no longer clear whose journey we're on. Claire's choices are ultimately deemed manipulative and unforgivable by the others, while Fenton's actions are excused as illness. The difficulty here is that Townsend hasn't developed these characters enough to allow any room for complexity, and we shift too easily from one stereotype to the next. She also mixes in metaphoric references to the twisted character of Richard III (a role Sean is rehearsing) and the chilly air of creativity (Fenton's studio is supposed to be above the tree line where the temperature can drop to "sub-zero") - interesting ideas that add little to the drama.
Directors Daniel Bourque and Lyralen Kaye create some lovely moments and have found a wonderful acting ensemble to bring the story to life. Schwager is appropriately distracted and self-absorbed, Driscoll is desperate and troubled, and Orrigo is wonderfully naïve and hopeful. Sheikh has the most difficult role, as Lois is mostly an observer, but she does her best to instill some emotion into speeches that might seem more likely to appear as paragraphs in a scholarly paper than in a conversation. Although we are told the action takes place in Cambridge, no obvious references help orient us to any place in particular.
Tracing the lengths to which people will go for creative inspiration or attention can lead to a fascinating adventure, but it requires more subtlety than appears here. When, at the end of the play, Lois sends her son off into the big world with the advice, "Personal devastation is a marvelous tool for an artist," we have to wonder if she learned anything from the story she was a part of.