NEW YORK—The needs to heal and to find closure are at the heart of “The Long Shrift,” Robert Boswell’s intense drama at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.
Ten years ago, Richard (Scott Haze), an 18-year-old high school senior from a working class family, was accused of assault and rape by Beth (Ahna O’Reilly), one of the most popular girls in school and from one of the richest families in town.
Five years into his subsequent jail sentence, Beth recanted her story, which resulted in Richard being released. Five years after that, after bouncing from state to state and job to job, Richard returns home after receiving an invitation to his high school reunion.
Beth’s revelation comes too late to help Richard’s parents, Henry (Brian Lally) and Sarah (Ally Sheedy), who lost their home and everything they had in order to pay Richard’s legal bills. It also came too late to heal Richard’s relationship with his mom who has since passed away.
Not long after Richard’s return, Beth unexpectedly shows up, wanting to explain why she did what she did. Richard, however, still carries years of bitterness, as well as scars inside and out, and is in no mood to listen.
Boswell has written an interesting tale, one in which audience sympathy shifts as different aspects of the incident are revealed. Did Richard assault Beth, or did she make up the attack and if so, why?
The answers are not revealed until a final confrontation, after said high school reunion has taken place. Then it becomes clear that Beth desperately needs to move on from what happened, and the only way she can do that is to help Richard (a person whom she once had genuine feelings for) move on as well.
Essential to the play is James Franco’s taut direction, which keeps the story on a continual hair trigger of tension, even when humor is introduced. The levity comes from Macy (Allie Gallerani), a high school senior in charge of the reunion who is determined to get Richard to attend. His trial was the biggest thing to ever happen to the school.
Macy’s even more delighted when Richard agrees to go, but only if Beth comes with him. This pairing would offer Macy something similar to Gary Dotson and Cathleen Crowell Webb’s “how about a hug?” moment on national television.
Haze is quite good as Richard, a not all that likeable but definitely sympathetic character, who is still trying to get past the decade-old incident. While almost gleeful at humiliating the now despised Beth at the reunion, his real venom is directed at his former classmates and teachers. None of them came forward to support him during his trial but have totally welcomed him back now that he’s been vindicated.
O’Reilly is excellent as Beth, a woman keeping all her emotions in check and who is determined to do anything, including experience public ridicule, in order to get to the truth of the matter with Richard. She’s also a far cry from the stereotypical spoiled little rich girl that she’s initially painted as in the story.
Gallerani is great fun as Macy, a bubbly, status-seeking individual who has no real regard for anyone’s feelings but her own. Supplying effective comic relief, she illustrates what happens when one gets in over one’s head both personally and professionally. She also threatens to bring a bit of grief to Richard for ruining her own perceived chances for the future.
Lally is fine as Henry, the one person who steadfastly believes in Richard, both then and now. The matter caused friction with his wife Sarah, who could never bring herself to visit her son in prison.
Henry has learned to roll with the punches life throws. He desperately wants Richard to be happy and also to have a relationship with him that’s more than an occasional phone call.
Sheedy works well in the somewhat limited role of Sarah, a mother who was sure Richard was hiding something about what happened; but she was unwilling to confront him directly as that would have put husband Henry between the two people he loved most.
Sarah appears mostly in flashback or in Henry’s dreams, but it would have been interesting to see Richard and Sarah share a scene together as that would have added a new dimension to the story.
There are a couple of plot points never made clear and which would have made the story stronger if explained. Why, for example, does Beth wait five years to change her testimony, and if one assumes Beth’s family believed her recantation, why haven’t they tried to help Richard or Henry since?
Initially seemingly clear-cut but anything but by the time it’s over, “The Long Shrift,” (the title referring to a partially burned hotel sign), shows how the truth is not as black and white as it may first seem.
Eventually the question becomes whether either Richard or Beth will be able to reach out to the one person who might help them finally start to heal.
“The Long Shrift”
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
224 Waverly Place
Tickets: 866-811-4111 or visit rattlestick.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Closes: Aug. 23
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.