Cajun bayou by day, Alaskan cabin by night. That’s the set-up at 7 Stages this month as Synchronicity Theatre takes over the backstage space for the last two productions of its 2011-12 season. The bayou swamp shack of the children’s show “Petite Rouge” works the night shift as an Alaskan cabin in the two-person adult drama “Brilliant Traces,” which was a minor hit in New York in 1989. Both shows are on stage through March 25.
As “Brilliant Traces” opens, a woman in full bridal gear arrives mysteriously at the isolated cabin in the middle of a snowstorm and then collapses on the floor. She’s helped by the owner, a young man who is running from as many demons as she is.
A two-person play rests heavily on the talents of its lead players, and fortunately both Kate Graham as Rosannah and Chad Martin as Henry are strong in their parts.
Graham does a nice job playing a woman past the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her gift is for the comic moments, and she captures Rosannah’s shrill, unfocused anxiety. She wisely brings some robust toughness to the role, but the playwright’s creation is more fragile and flighty than that. In the end, there are too few moments of quiet, considered drama for the character to come to life.
Martin has the play’s best moment when he calmly explains the three possible ways his daughter might have been saved from the fall that killed her. It’s clear that he has played the whole thing over and over in his mind, searching for a way to blame himself. For Henry, a blameless universe where things happen for no reason is even more torturous than being at fault.
But good acting can’t save weak and forced material. All the pieces are in the right places for a bit of mystery and drama, but in the end, it all feels too contrived to convince us or hold our interest. The situation is so unreal that we lose our curiosity about the characters.
Rosannah’s dashing from the altar and driving through the night doesn’t carry the great existential questions that playwright Cindy Lou Johnson imagines it does. For all her visible effort, “Brilliant Traces” fails to generate much dramatic heat. Heightened descriptions of driving alone at night or the traces that loved ones leave behind contain some nice poetry, but they simply don’t resonate as they’re clearly intended to. Some of it even reads like a parody of the excesses of Sam Shepard.
The details of past hurts are nicely done, but the revelations themselves are totally expected. We know that we’ll learn about these characters’ difficult pasts, that her revelation will come about three-fifths of the way through the show, and that his will soon follow. You could time it all with a stopwatch.
The denouement, in which the wounded characters end up in each other’s arms, ready to try again, could have been guessed by anyone in the audience 10 minutes into the proceedings. There’s an unlikely meeting, some angry exchanges, defenses are lowered, secrets are revealed, and the two end up in an embrace. That describes “Brilliant Traces” and a million other romantic comedies and dramas.
“Brilliant Traces” is designed to be mysterious and moving, with the emphasis on the word “designed.” It’s a play in which we can see not only all the machinery, but the playwright’s hand turning the crank.