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Stage Review

'Indulgences' gets stuck in the muddle

Pictured, from left: Tony Larkin, Benjamin Evett, and Ed Hoopman star in the New Repertory production of “Indulgences.’’ Pictured, from left: Tony Larkin, Benjamin Evett, and Ed Hoopman star in the New Repertory production of “Indulgences.’’ (Andrew Brilliant)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / January 22, 2010

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WATERTOWN - As you watch Chris Craddock’s “Indulgences,’’ you can sense a playwright straining to create a Stoppardian comedy of ideas.

But while there are intermittent sparks in a new production of “Indulgences’’’ at the New Repertory Theatre, directed by Kate Warner, neither the comedy nor the ideas generate enough electricity.

So what we are left with instead is two hours of strenuously labored whimsy in search of a point.

It’s too bad, because there are glimmers of the talent possessed by Craddock, a Canadian playwright who enjoyed some success in New York in 2008 with “Bash’d!’’

“Indulgences’’ does begin promisingly enough. As the New Rep audience takes their seats, they discover that a man in a dark suit is sprawled unconscious on the stage. He climbs to his feet, splashes water on his face, and, with a mix of weariness and trepidation, announces: “Here we go.’’ He seems to be bracing for another long day at the office.

Turns out he is a salesman, though of a very particular sort. He sells indulgences, and his boss is none other than God. Indulgences are free get-out-of-hell-or-purgatory passes for sinners. “It’s like God saying ‘I indulge you. I’m going to look the other way,’ ’’ the salesman, played by Benjamin Evett with a Sonny Corleone swagger, explains to a well-dressed businessman (Joel Colodner) he meets in a bar. He adds: “Everybody needs what I’m selling. Everybody.’’

The businessman, though, is actually a king in disguise, and he is less concerned about saving his immortal soul than about tensions back in the royal court. Soon two guys in plumed hats, doublets, and breeches enter the bar, speaking in pseudo-Shakespearean dialogue full of “Thou’’ this and “My lord and liege’’ that, and “Indulgences’’ starts to run off the rails.

It appears that the king is deeply estranged from his son, Prince Malcolm (Ed Hoopman), and a murder plot is afoot. Is this yet another case of princely ambition for the throne turned lethal? Not necessarily. The prince is gay, and wants to marry his lover, Fleance (Tony Larkin), but his father the king has forbidden it.

A counterplot against the prince is hatched by two royal advisers (Leigh Barrett and Steven Barkhimer) who fear his ascension to the throne. Craddock also introduces a subplot whereby the king arranges to swaps identities with a man (Neil A. Casey) who closely resembles him. “Anyone can be anyone,’’ the king later explains to a bartender. “That’s the whole hypothesis of our experiment.’’

Along the way, there is a lot of talk about “free will’’ and the “ineffable overall objective’’ of the Creator (who is referred to as both male and female). Indeed, Craddock seems to feel that if he throws around these phrases often enough it will provide a philosophical framework for “Indulgences,’’ and if he shoehorns in enough references to gay marriage it will lend the play a veneer of topicality.

But for every somewhat sharp insight, there is a flabby or predictable punchline. With a Tom Stoppard, however chaotic things get onstage, you have the sense of a playwright in firm control of his material at all times. “Indulgences,’’ though, has a muddled feel, as if Craddock was just throwing things against the wall to see what stuck.

In fairness, a few things do stick. There are some amusing moments, particularly in the second act, when the salesman/fixer tries (and tries, and tries) his hand at altering the course of human events.

“Indulgences’’ also gains a bit of heft when the king-turned-commoner wrestles with the mutability of identity. But even then Craddock has a tendency toward a ham-handed dialectic that smacks more of the dorm room than the stage. “Perhaps it’s people’s lives that are growing in sameness and not the people at all,’’ the king tells the salesman. “But if I’m not special, even in my not-very-special way, then what am I? What is anybody?’’

To his credit, Colodner puts such lines across with enough force that they seem to matter. Evett and Casey, too, seem to be enjoying themselves; they bring some comic juice to their parts. But Barrett and Barkhimer, two fine actors, are stranded in hopeless roles. So, largely, are Hoopman and Larkin.

Warner, the artistic director of the New Rep, clearly believes in “Indulgences’’; she also staged it when she was artistic director of Dad’s Garage Theatre in Atlanta. It’s laudable that Warner was willing to take a risk; there are worse things for a theater company than to be adventurous.

But there are simply too many moments of this messy “Indulgences’’ when it feels like the one being indulged is the playwright.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

INDULGENCES Play by: Chris Craddock

Directed by Kate Warner

Lights, Karen Perlow. Sets, Peter Colao. Costumes, Molly Trainer.

At: New Repertory Theatre, Watertown. Through Feb. 6. Tickets $35-$54, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org.