neat & tidy, a new drama about the aftermath of a terrible crime, uses the shocking rape and murder of a little girl as a scraper to peel away the layers of rind that have covered two strikingly contrasting characters, the girl’s mother and the killer, in similarly unhappy shells. It’s a bravely imagined if imperfect work, receiving a solid production directed by playwright and Artistic Director Steven Carl McCasland and presented by the Beautiful Soup Theater Collective at the Gene Frankel Theatre until May 27.
The play takes a multiple-monologue format, in which numerous characters spend a good deal of their stage time addressing the audience directly, relating events and, eventually, revealing essential character fundamentals. This type of drama runs the risk of losing its narrative grip, given its severely constrained ability to show us interactions among the characters. But Mr. McCasland’s perceptive feel for the ever-so-slightly elevated language of the heart, combined with the careful timing of the sometimes overlapping monologues, overcomes this limitation and keeps the play grounded in theatricality, even finding notes of comedy in the awful circumstances.
There’s also the risk of coming across as something of a cop-out – isn’t it easier, after all, to write narrative than to write convincing dialogue? The simple answer is yes, but if you can pull off the Thornton Wilder trick of breaking the fourth wall while leaving a kind of mesmerizing glassy barrier in its place, as McCasland does here, you can skirt the hazard and produce something quite stirring.
Not every pane fits the glass perfectly: the over-obvious use of Tori Amos’s “Silent All These Years” to set the tone, the sometimes too tangential exposition from the mayor’s wife (the amusing Ellyn Stein, who, like many in the cast, plays several characters). But the naive testimony from a perky babysitter (Emily Floyd), the address to a mourning congregation by an over-his-head young minister (Rory Allan Meditz), and other elements draw from a font of truth that realistic dialogue can usually only suggest.
The fine cast has a lot of say in the matter, including a heartbreakingly flatlined Lisa Crosby Wipperling as Tracy, the depressed mother; a lively Samantha Steinmetz as a settling-for-less waitress; and Max Rory Meisel as the harrowingly mild-mannered Luke, the troubled offender.
The story overplays its hand as the climax crests and the truths come out – about Tracy’s mental state and its cause, with occasionally overblown dramatic moments (“I stayed in this shithole for you, Tom, for you”), and about the unsurprising and somehow disappointing backstory to Luke’s psychopathic tendencies. The revelations add up to overkill and the conclusion over-satisfies our desire to know, an artifact, I think, of the monologic narrative format. Tracy’s coda overstays its welcome too.
But overall this is a laudable effort from an ambitious young theater company that overcame some significant difficulties to get this interesting production staged, and deserves credit and attention for the work it is doing, which has also included new musicals and Shakespeare. neat & tidy doesn’t entirely live up to its name, but then, as its story suggests, life rarely does either.