Playwright Lyle Kessler and the never-timid Amoralists take on the difficult matter of gun violence from the inside in Collision, now in its world premiere production at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre through Feb. 17. Directed tautly by David Fofi, the cast of five includes three Amoralists regulars, so it’s no surprise there’s a surfeit of acting talent on the stage. What I wondered was whether Kessler’s work would fit well with the group’s gonzo style.
What the play actually does is broaden their scope through an expanded intellectual focus, personified by Grange (James Kautz), a charismatic psychopath who arrives at college with an agenda that we can sense, but that becomes clear only after a series of carefully plotted, increasingly eye-opening scenes over many days and weeks. Quickly winning over his socially backward roommate Bromley (the always droll Nick Lawson) and a smart but impressionable young female student named Doe (the excellent Anna Stromberg), Grange also draws into his net a middle-aged professor (Michael Cullen), the latter by means of a shocking tactic that begins to reveal Grange’s darkest colors. This brilliant charlatan is preternaturally adept at finding and pressuring his recruits’ weak points, which tend to be one form or another of broken-home syndrome combined with a desire to be appreciated on an intellectual level.
Michael Cullen as Professor Denton, Nick Lawson as Bromley and Anna Stromberg as Doe. James Kautz as Grange kneeling on the floor. Photo by Russ Rowland.
As written, and as played by Kautz, Grange seems very real, which is what makes him fascinating and scary. At that age I knew a Grange (though fortunately one without the psychopathy), one of those characters who seem to always get what they want through sheer force of personality, whether or not they deserve it and whomever they have to climb over to reach it. Indeed all the characters here feel very well lived-in, even the gun dealer Renel (Craig ‘muMs’ Grant). Though Renel is a tough guy with a sensitive side, Grange is able to sand away his hard-edged street smarts as easily as he gets Doe’s clothes off and nullifies Bromley’s normal human sympathies.
The cult of personality is an old story, but Grange uses the modern-day premise of shooting a movie to keep his followers feeling that they’re a safe distance from what may be really happening. And what is really happening is awfully up-to-date indeed. Kessler’s accomplishment here is to link the worst of what 21st century Americans can do to the ancient threads of human nature. Though gut-wrenching, in a twisted sort of way it’s comforting to recognize there have always been Granges and there’s nothing new under the sun.
The way this incipient cult leader pulls Professor Denton into his orbit is as interesting as everything else Grange does, but having the crusty philosophy teacher join the students in their final scenario is the one thing that doesn’t quite sit right. That Denton has suffered his own version of a broken home doesn’t seem enough to make this mature fellow susceptible to Grange’s dominance the way the students are. (And the fact that Cullen makes us feel sympathy for the unappealing Denton doesn’t make it any easier to see him get sucked into the maelstrom.) Fortunately, this flaw doesn’t detract much from the power of the piece overall.
Click here for tickets and more information. Collision runs through Feb. 17.