Absolution has been reviewed in London, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston.
Time Out London
Charles Godfrey-Faussett — Critic's Choice
Robert Sherwood's latest play takes a searching, disturbing look at our collective responsibility for the reconciliation of individuals with themselves and their history. If that makes it sound as ominously high-minded as the title suggests, it is. But far from turning out an evening of earnest stodge, Sherwood has skilfully crafted a mysterious whodunnit, demonstrating in the process the fascinating difficulty of his theme: that the past can only speak with the voice of the present.
Fifteen years after leaving high school, the fortunes of three Canadian men have taken very different turns. Now they are finding their collusive silence about a drunken act of hideous sexual violence very hard to keep. The problem is that Peter has found Jesus, confessed all to his wife, and now wants Gordon and David to follow suit. Although the crime's central importance to the plot risks becoming exploitative, Brennan Street's even-handed direction ensures that our curiosity is chiefly provoked by the men's reactions to Peter's conversion and the consequent effect on Gordon's former lover Lorraine (Elizabeth Banks) and his perfect wife Anne (Lloyd Wylde). Both actresses calmly underscore the play's attack on the chauvinism implicit in the men's relationship. James Holmes almost steals the show in fine and frenzied form as Peter, the man who's seen the light, but Rob Freeman also flirts confidently with self-parody as ball-busting businessman Gordon. These powerful performances are carefully counterpointed by Morgan Symes as David, a softly spoken scholar turned creepy proofreader. A well constructed play, then, and a production that makes reluctant witnesses of its audience with enjoyable assurance. Decidedly unsettling.
The Financial Times
In Canadian playwright Robert William Sherwood's new play, Absolution, the truth of memory and the memory of truth are questioned. Fifteen years on, three high school buddies are challenged by one of their number, a born-again Christian, to repent for the horror of a past deed. They had raped an anonymous woman, mutilated her body and buried the corpse. It is recollected so vividly that we moan in disgust. Yet we stomach the horror not out of prurience but in order to delve into these men's bleak psyches.
David is a proof-reader on a newspaper, having failed as an academic teaching Greek and Latin. Gordon is a money-making womaniser. Peter (a dangerous, primal scream performance by James Holmes, acting like the young John Malkovich), has "got religion", and wants them all to confess their sin to the Vancouver police in order to receive the absolution of society. Each is a lost soul trapped in the vacuous present, defined by their shared grisly past.
The play explores men's bestiality, the nauseating bond of the male pack and the cynical abuse of women. (A predatory flirtation between David and Gordon's wife runs in disturbingly erotic counterpoint). A well-crafted play, it keeps us on sinister tenterhooks.
The writing grapples with the rawness of the psychology and then manipulates our intellect. It is not only the accuracy of memory which is doubted but the profundity of belief. David, the fastidious word-checker, the teacher of dead languages, argues that 'the word was never made flesh', expressing incredulity that Peter now believes in 'God' and 'Jesus': 'Not only are you stupid enough to believe it, you're stupid enough to believe it in translation.'
Sherwood proves that truth only exists in words. His theatrical fiction is so strong that the impact of the event described is as disturbing as if the incident were real.
The London Times
Three high school boys in Vancouver, wildly drunk, rape a nameless girl. One of them goes overboard and uses a screwdriver. They wake up with three hangovers, one corpse, and no idea which of them killed her.
Robert William Sherwood's gripping play starts 15 years after the students have buried the truth and gone their separate ways. One of the trio, Peter, is seeking absolution. He has discovered God, told his Saskatchewan girlfriend the story, and has hitched back to Vancouver to get Gordon and David to repent. It is here that Sherwood's play moves beyond its sensational material to a series of delicately crafted encounters that have the sort of mythic quality of a big screen showdown.
With the evidence rotted away, Peter's only lever is the truth. But his memory of the truth is starkly different to that of Gordon and David. Time has also played tricks with their memory of each other. David, the high-school achiever, has sunk into an anonymous job as a proof-reader, while Gordon has grown into an aggressive, womanising business tycoon.
Jason Merrells manages to make the caricaturable excesses of Gordon into his strengths, exploding with palpable venom at Peter's insistence on some collective moral responsibility. James Holmes puts in a fantastically convincing performance as the long-haired Peter, whose every night is haunted by the horror of the victim's face and whose salvation is painfully unravelled by David's dry logic. 'The word was never made flesh,' says Timothy Deenihan's inscrutable David. 'Not only are you stupid enough to believe it, you're stupid enough to believe it in translation.'
What Sherwood makes flesh is that truth with no evidence is only words. Not since Brad Fraser's Unidentified Human Remains and The True Nature of Love has a Canadian play so graphically captured that edgy dislocation between human waste and meaning.
Robert William Sherwood's terrifyingly cruel appraisement of murder, memory and machismo is a class act: just nasty enough to shock, and thoughtful enough to make it seem much more than simply another whodunit. It is Agatha Christie with a philosophy.
A lifetime ago, David, Gordon and Peter raped, mutilated and murdered a faceless, nameless young woman whom no one has ever missed.
Now all in their thirties, their lives have gone in different directions. Gordon is a successful businessman who regularly cheats on his wife; David is an edgy, possibly psychotic loner who has given up a university career to be a newspaper proof-reader; and Peter has got a wife, four children, a pick-up van and God. God, Peter says, wants him to repent and Peter thinks Gordon and David should confess their past crimes. The game of mental poker among the three men is what steers the play along, but it is powered by a slick, hard-nosed debate that gets to the heart of what makes a community.
'This girl, it was as if she just got run over by a passing bus: her society was not our society,' says Gordon. 'But if we are only responsible to the people we know we are responsible to no one,' Peter counters.
Brennan Street's production is taut as a nerve and the performances as hard as steel. There is nothing forgiving about this 90 minutes, which spares little as it proves that nothing is absolute. Certainly not memory, and least of all truth.
The Daily Breeze
Imagine a perfect crime: a murder that leaves no clues; no traces, not even a body and therefore is effectively unsolvable.
Crime experts dispute that such a thing is possible — someone always knows something, and sooner or later that something is bound to come out. But what if it were possible? And what effect would committing such an act have on the perpetrator?
That's the starting point for Robert William Sherwood's "Absolution," a powerful and engrossing drama that was highly acclaimed in its 1997 London debut and now makes its U.S. premiere in the Court Theatre in West Hollywood.
Setting off Sherwood's taut drama is a stark, nearly empty stage on which individual scenes are created entirely through clever lighting, the work of Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond ("Close Encounters of the Third Kind").
Indeed, with its intense focus, terse dialogue, carefully drawn characterizations and claustrophobic tension, the piece plays like a film shot entirely in close-up. Played out in a single act without intermission, the effect is like a noose that is slowly but inexorably tightened.
The action starts with the arrival of a cryptic message after 15 years of silence, one that achieves an immediate response and alerts the recipient of the need for action.
Its sender is Gordon (Jonathan Scarfe), a hyperkinetic and highly successful stock trader who lives in Vancouver; its recipient is David (Matt Letscher), a disillusioned former academic who seemingly fled his hometown, moved thousands of miles away and has spent the years in a slide towards almost total obscurity.
Through snatches of dialogue, we gradually learn that they were two of three participants in a grisly rape-homicide that happened during a drunken teen-age party.
The third participant, the wild card in the equation, is Peter (Christian J. Meoli), a farmer and family man whose conversion to "born-again" Christianity has motivated a desire for confession and absolution, despite the wreckage such a revelation would create in the lives of all three.
Questions of guilt and innocence, conscience and morality alternate with debates over what purpose would be served for either victim or perpetrators in dredging up the crime after such a long time. But one thing is certain: none of the parties has been left unscathed by the event, despite its lack of physical evidence.
Willard Carroll's masterful direction is only rivaled by his casting choices. Scarfe is a powerful and charismatic choice for Gordon, a man whose ruthlessness and apparent amorality are a chilling combination. Elizabeth Mitchell, as his exquisite but naive trophy wife, Anne, provides a superb contrast to Scarfe's barely-civilized savagery.
Letscher also delivers a genuine performance as the enigmatic and morally ambiguous David, whose psychic wounds are buried under multiple layers of existentialist anesthesia. Meoli is thoroughly credible as the equally disturbed Peter, who clings to religion in a desperate attempt to climb out of his own moral abyss.
Jennifer Rubin adds a strong supporting presence as Lorraine, the promiscuous young woman whose seemingly aimless existence is also tied to events in the past.
Carroll's pacing, a trifle slow and ragged at first, builds to roller-coaster intensity, along with the intensity of his actors' portrayals. They provide the perfect backdrop to the play's few but highly effective (and well-choreographed) displays of physical violence.
Clearly not light entertainment, "Absolution" offers a meaty intellectual challenge and an engrossing theater experience.
Bryce P. Coleman
Absolution is a drunken blackout, a trio of high school buddies rape and kill a young woman. With no clear recollection of what happened, or which one did it, they promptly dispose of the corpse and swear an oath of silence. Fifteen years later, they are drawn together again when one (Christian J. Meoli) of the three finds the Lord and asks the others to repent. The wealthy misogynist of the group (Jonathan Scarfe) wants to hear none of it and enlists the aid of the trio's disillusioned, nihilistic loner (Matt Letscher). If an unknown girl is murdered and there's no one to remember it — or her — did it really happen?
Robert William Sherwood's dark, psychological drama proves questions of morality, lost innocence and the meanings of "society." Director Willard Carroll's cinematic style, taut pacing and an exceedingly strong cast provide moments of sustained tension and a discomforting sense of intimacy. Unfortunately, neither of the two female characters (played by Jennifer Rubin and Elizabeth Mitchell) ever goes beyond being an accessory to the male leads. The purposely nondescript, multifunctional set, co-designed by Jim Dultz and Pipo Wintter, meshes beautifully with Vilmos Zsigmond's artful lighting effects.
Los Angeles Times
Jana J. Monji
On a summer day in 1995, David (Matt Letscher) receives a message from an old high school friend, Gordon (Jonathan Scarfe). Handed the queen of spades, David imagines within the card the haunted face of a woman he's seen only once.
Quitting his dead-end job as a newspaper proofreader, David returns to his hometown of Vancouver to meet with two old friends in this sleek production of Robert William Sherwood's psychological thriller "Absolution," at the Court Theatre.
Once the golden boy, David has become a loner locked inside "a state of moral purgatory." Gordon, now a ruthless rich businessman with an icy trophy wife (Elizabeth Mitchell), tells him that another friend, born-again Christian Peter (Christian J. Meoli), is seeking absolution, asking them to publicly confess their crime—the brutal rape and murder of an unidentified woman during a drunken party 15 years ago.
Director Willard Carroll's interpretation is so cold and intellectual that the ending comes as too much of a surprise. Letscher and Mitchell move and mouth their lines with impassive grace against Scarfe's fiery bluster and Meoli's whining guilt.
The stark lines of Jim Dultz and Pipo Wintter's minimalist set suggest a bleakness that is given a seductive appeal by the lighting design of Vilmos Zsigmond and Robert Jason.
Despite the faults, the disturbing question of a world without belief—where the Bible is mere "hearsay"—is still hauntingly evoked by this stylish production.
The Chicago Sun-Times
The big question to ask about Robert William Sherwood's "Absolution": Is it a morality play in the mode of David Mamet (but without Mamet's puritanical streak), or is it yet another piece of 1990s-style vicious nihilism in the tradition of such contemporary British dramatists as Mark Ravenhill ("Shopping and F------") and Sarah Kane ("Cleansed"), Chicago's own Tracy Letts ("Killer Joe," "Bug"), or Sherwood's fellow Canadian playwright, Brad Fraser ("Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love")?
In fact, it is a little of both, which only adds to the discomfort and revulsion you may feel after seeing the steel trap of a production that opened Sunday at the Steppenwolf Garage under the direction of Martha Plimpton.
The play is not for the meek (the language is the least of it; it's the imagery that turns your stomach), but it is as thought-provoking and disturbing as it is coolly sensationalistic. And throughout the 80 minutes, it takes for the story to detonate, "Absolution" sustains a very high level of suspense.
It begins with a meeting in a Toronto bar that has not happened by chance. Lorraine (Jennifer Kern) has been sent from Vancouver by her married lover, Gordon (Frank Dominelli), to deliver a playing card—the Queen of Spades—to David (Coby Goss), a high school friend he has not seen for 15 years. He knows the meaning of this message in a flash, and he knows that he must return to Vancouver.
David, a former classics professor who abandoned a promising career years earlier, and who is now surviving as a proofreader (a metaphorically apt job), is an eerily bland, self-destructive type who has more or less severed all social ties. His old friend Gordon, however, is an obnoxious, self-aggrandizing, frat-boy style businessman with a criminal streak and a blond, ice princess wife, Anne (Danica Ivancevic), who works as his assistant. The two men were high school buddies, along with a third, Peter (Michael Loeffelholz), who now works as a farmer and has married, fathered four children and become a reborn Christian.
It is an ultimatum from Peter that brings them all back together. Though each man has gone his very separate way for years, they were once all involved in a horrific, satanic act that they jointly covered up and have remained silent about ever since.
But now that Peter has found God, he needs to confess, and he expects the other two men to go along with him to the authorities.
Each of the these men have been living in a state of profound denial, and for each there has been enormous, if quite different consequences. David and Gordon are barren, desiccated human beings, even if one is overtly successful, and their tainted souls have tainted the women they know as well.
"Absolution" unspools in a rapid-fire series of short, airtight scenes that are full of escalating menace and revelation. Over the course of the scenes, there is much discussion about the nature of reality and faith, the untrustworthiness of language, the strange power of memory and of willed forgetting, the eerie realization that the roots of character are revealed early, and are to a large extent irreversible. The evidence of guilt here is not material; it is psychic.
Plimpton, who most recently starred in Steppenwolf's "Hedda Gabler," is making her directorial debut here, and it is impressive. She has cast the play expertly, and has seen to it that her actors turn in switchblade-sharp performances.
In the play's most chilling role, Goss raises goosebumps even though he barely raises his voice and seems to have erased any trace of expression from his face. He has turned himself into a dead man walking, and when he passes his fingers over Anne's hair in a taunting act of seduction, it might just as well be a knife that he is wielding. It is an altogether creepy, literally hair-raising performance.
Dominelli easily suggests Gordon's thuggish, volatile, insecure personality and its lingering adolescent transparency. He would make a great Iago; he is at his best when revealing his character's ferocious jealous streak. As for Loeffelholz, he assumes the right bleating tone for a sacrificial lamb.
Ivancevic plays Anne like one of those Hitchcock girls—light on the outside, dark and steelier than expected on the inside—and her transitions are seamless.
Kern's character is just the opposite; tough and ironic on the outside, vulnerable on the inside. And in one of the play's most haunting, aria-like speeches—which this splendid actress delivers in a riveting, almost otherworldly trance—she talks about the fact that nothing in her life seems real, and that her quest for love invariably leaves her with a gaping emptiness.
Matthew York's set—a sterile, yawning space—suits the mood, as do Jaymi Lee Smith's sepulchral lighting, sound designer Ray Nardelli's blasts of jagged rock, and costume designer Michelle Lynette Bush's character-defining street clothes.
Absolution this play most definitely does not impart on its audience. But as an act of theatrical provocation, it cannot be faulted.
Chicago Courier News
The Garage at Steppenwolf is dedicated to presenting new and offbeat plays, and it's come up with a corker in Absolution.
The play the work of Canadian playwright Robert William Sherwood. His works have been produced throughout the world but Absolution seems to be his first local production. The drama has its flaws but the show still sticks in the mind like a burr.
David, Gordon, and Peter are three thirtysomething men who were friends in high school but drifted apart. Gordon is a successful stockbroker in Vancouver. David is a former college professor now rootless and adrift. Peter lives an insignificant life in Saskatchewan.
While the men were in high school, they raped a young woman during a drunken orgy and the woman ended up mutilated and dead, presumably killed by one of the three buddies.
The woman's death went unrecorded and the three men continued on with their lives. Now Peter has become a born-again Christian and demands that all three of them publicly confess to purify their souls.
Absolution is not about the assault. It's a play about moral relativism, and it raises some subversive and disturbing issues.
The heart of the play comes in a tense scene in a seedy hotel room where Gordon tries to convince Peter to abandon his confessional crusade. Gordon knows that no criminal charges would come from an event that happened 15 years earlier and left no trace of the body. But he wants to preserve his reputation from unpleasant publicity.
In an angry and feverish exchange with Peter, Gordon stakes out a claim for moral relativism. He insists he bears no resemblance to the young Gordon who committed the assault, its details lost in time and booze in any case. Nothing is gained by raking up the cold embers of the incident except to make innocent third parties suffer. Peter is merely on a religious ego trip to stroke his own conscience.
Gordon is not a nice man but he is a persuasive talker. Should the past be allowed to rest in silence? Is it fair to hold the man accountable for the acts of his adolescence in a different time? Nobody gains from a confession — society, God nor the dead woman. What's done is done, or is it? Is honesty always the best policy or just a self indulgence so a religion-consumed man can sleep better at night?
Individual viewers will react personally to the arguments on stage, depending on their own moral compass. But if Gordon is right in claiming that life is not black and white and morality is relative, then Peter is just a loose cannon willing to take down others to ease his own psychological pain. If Peter is right, then Gordon is a self-serving lowlife rewriting the moral law to save his hide. Take your pick.
The moral conflicts make Absolution worth seeing. The play itself suffers from an ambiguous conclusion and fuzziness in the characters. The confrontations would be more persuasive if the characters were more sympathetic. The three men and the two women in the story all lead empty, shallow lives, and one suspects they would be equally as empty and shallow if the rape incident had never happened.
The performances are OK, though Frank Dominelli rises to a fine fever pitch as Gordon in his verbal attack on Peter (Michael Loeffholz). Coby Goss is David, Jennifer Kern is Gordon's sometime mistress, and Danica Ivancevic is Gordon's materialistic wife.
Actress Martha Plimpton makes her directorial debut with this production and she keeps the action taut, building to the fierce scene between Gordon and Peter. It's an interesting choice of plays for a directorial debut.
Plimpton is quoted as saying that she wanted to do the drama because there is a lot in it that is relevant in terms of her own life. Wow!
Windy City Times
Mary Shen Barnidge
The first suspect we meet is David, a classics professor mired in spiritual inertia, who receives a coded signal...a single playing card delivered to him by an attractive and vaguely familiar young lady...summoning him to a conference with his boyhood companions. They are Gordon, now a high-rolling stockbroker, and Peter, who opted for marriage, fatherhood and a home in the rural midlands. The purpose of this reunion gradually emerges: 15 years earlier, after a drunken party, these school chums gang-shagged a willing damsel, one of them subsequently murdering her as well. They have lived with this guilty knowledge ever since, never asking which of them did the deed. But Peter's recently Born-Again conscience now demands a confession from the culprit they have been shielding in their denial all these years.
So whodunit? Playwright Robert William Sherwood gives us a name eventually, but questions still persist: Why is there no evidence? How and where did they hide the body? Why are their recollections of time and place so nebulous? WAS, in fact, a crime committed, or is this just a collective fraternal fantasy? Or is this David's subjective fantasy, the different aspects of his personality represented by the buddies whose lifestyles break down neatly into Id, Ego and Superego? And how about the messenger girl who hangs on even after her mission is accomplished...was she the teenage Aphrodite his memory refuses to erase, is she the ghost of the dead sex-slave, or his next victim?
Under the guidance of Martha Plimpton (making her directorial debut), the actors deftly navigate Sherwood's slippery psychological dynamic to create a universe sufficiently hyperrealistic to forestall any skepticism regarding the facts it presents. Coby Goss makes an appropriately big-chilled David. Michael Loeffelholz, a suitably tormented Peter. Frank Dominelli, a comfortably Mamet-mouthed greedhead. And Danica Ivancevic contributes a tidy ice-queen turn as the latter's trophy stepford-wife. But it is Jennifer Kern as the...well, odd card in the deck, whose ambiguous role in this three-way First Degree continues to intrigue us long after the play is over.
The Boston Phoenix
David Mamet and Neil LaBute sit down to a meal of cold existentialism in Robert William Sherwood's grim memory play Absolution. Part meditation, part thriller, the Canadian writer's elliptical, viscerally discomforting stage noir posits a high-school reunion Sissy Spacek's Carrie wouldn't wish on her persecutors. Fifteen years before the play begins, a trio of blind-drunk male Vancouver teens committed an atrocity they didn't wholly remember; now it comes back like a bad penny. But the play isn't as much about the unearthed crime as it is about its reverberations, if not consequences, in the lives of the perpetrators, one of whom has become disconnected not just from his so-called life but from any belief in the language he once revered. On one level, Absolution is a bookend to Adam Rapp's haunting Nocturne, which American Repertory Theatre New Stages presented last season. In that work, a young man uses words as a ladder on which to climb out of grief. Absolution is about the inadequacy of words to explain — or obfuscate — our most basic precepts, from faith to morality to social connection.
Sherwood lists Pinter and Mamet as influences, and Absolution recalls the former's Old Times and several works by the latter. In the enigmatic opening scene, a man and a woman who knew each other 15 years ago in high school in Vancouver meet in a Toronto bar. Lorraine has been sent by her employer, Gordon, who's also a high-school associate of the two, to departed chum David with an odd message he seems to understand: a playing card, the Queen of Spades. Lorraine and David converse in cryptic, jittery rhythms: the past is a distant country, and " reality is not always what it seems. "
Nonetheless, the calling card is acknowledged. Loner David, " intrigued " by the beckoning of a corrupt but connected past, quits his job and returns to Vancouver with Lorraine. Appearing almost robotic, the lapsed classics scholar turned newspaper proofreader reconnects with Gordon, who's now a wealthy businessman, and meets his beautiful wife, Anne. Gordon explains that the other member of their long-ago criminal triumvirate, Peter, who's now a " hick " farmer in Saskatchewan, has gotten religion and returned to urge them to " confess " the crime they can't remember yet can't forget. It's all gauzily disembodied semantics to David, who is as divorced from Gordon's money-driven new-age rationalizing as he is from Peter's desperate Bible thumping — and himself. In his Toronto life, " nothing sticks " ; he has returned to the gruesome, guilt-ridden connection that is the only " society " he's known. As tensions mount, David turns out to be a far looser cannon than Peter, believing, as he does, that absolution is just another hollow collection of syllables.
Absolution is indeed disturbing, and the eerie, explosive ART production, its gaps filled by an anxiety-producing amalgam of rain and spooky, clanking sound by David Remedios, has a violent yet elegiac impact that's hard to deny. My principal reservation is that the work seems so derivative. Not only do the ghosts of Mamet and Pinter and Sam Shepard float through it but one finds oneself thinking of other works, from Israel Horovitz's 20-year-old The Widow's Blind Date to LaBute's 1999 bash. The author admits that the play was " subconsciously " inspired by a notorious 1970s Manitoba murder. But his is not so much a crime story as one about the ultimately useless manipulation of memory and conscience. More significant is Sherwood's revelation that, having abandoned his own classics career in the mid '90s to move to London and pursue a playwriting career, he spent a year soaking up the work of others before getting down to his own. The influences are readily identifiable, though the result of the cobbling is artful.
This is also, despite some cumbersome choreography for the set, a particularly good ART small-stage effort. At the center of Scott Zigler's taut staging is Brennan Brown, whose stony, erect, contained David radiates both numbness and danger. On the Mamet front, Atlantic Theater founding member Jordan Lage makes of Gordon, with his muscular, nonsensical mantra of self-definition through present success, an upscale version of Glengarry Glen Ross's Ricky Roma, the doubt beneath his machismo apparent in a body language that moves from slick to slack. And ART regular Benjamin Evett, as the despairingly sanctimonious Peter, ably captures a guy you want to brush off like lint but whose suffering is palpable. The women make less of an impression, but then, so did Madonna in Speed-the-Plow.
The Harvard Independent
Absolution, by the young Canadian playwright Robert William Sherwood, is both a riveting thriller and a disturbing exploration of the nature of moral conscience. Its premise, drawn loosely from a real-life crime, centers around three high-school friends who all took part, as teens, in a brutal drunken rape and murder that each now, years later, struggles to deal with.
The three friends all deal with their guilt — and their uncertain memories as to the actual course of events — in divergent ways. Gordon (Jordan Lage) is now a high-powered and materialistic stockbroker with a trophy wife and ego to spare. Peter (played superbly by Benjamin Evett), has withdrawn to Saskatchewan and embraced born-again Christianity. David (Brennan Brown) is a failed Classics Professor ("not only are you stupid enough to believe what's written in a book, you're stupid enough to believe it in translation," he rages at Peter), worn ragged by solitude and a sense of dislocation from his youthful self. Together, the three, with Canadian accents of varying convincingness, are all forced to confront the ramifications of their acts when Peter is seized with guilt and threatens to expose them all in the name of repentance.
The resulting drama is persuasive and well acted. Though Brown's David initially may jar, his portrayal of his introverted character acquires credibility with time. And Evett, superb in the recent Marat/Sade, reaffirms his talent as the spastic and tortured Peter. Lage's Gordon is the picture of self-indulgent sleaze, and sparks fly as he works against the morally apathetic David and the dogmatic Peter. Peggy Trecker and Sarah Howe also turn in admirable supporting performances. The Repertory, under Scott's Zigler's capable direction, makes solid use of the Hasty Pudding Theater with a set that, though spartan, never distracts from the essential action.
Despite the occasional critical comparison of Sherwood to Agatha Christie — in some respects, his play is a sort of nihilist's Mousetrap — Absolution firmly divorces itself from the British mystery-thriller archetype, in more than just a superficial way. Behind Sherwood's kinetic and hard-drinking characters, their raw insults and their in-your-face sexuality, lurks an articulate existential desperation, and an earnest human drama. Indeed, though the play's development as a thriller occasionally flirts with nourish-clich?, it ends up being deeper than its genre: By Absolution's end, it becomes clear that what troubles Gordon, Peter and David even more than their horrific crime is a reality that can so easily gloss their deeds over, and their own hazy perceptions of the past. A Rashomon without answers and Japanese people, Absolution leaves us wondering where language really does die.
The Berkeley Beacon
In Absolution, a cast of merely five actors manages to bring more passion to the stage than a cast of 20 might have, if given the chance.
The play tells the tale of David (Brennan Brown), Gordon (Jordan Lage) and Peter (Benjamin Evett), three high school friends who committed a gruesome crime in a drunken stupor.
Peter comes back to their town 15 years later to rehash what really happened. In a state of religious piety, he decides they must confess their crime and be forgiven in order to go on.
The American Repertory Theatre play is held in the Hasty Pudding Theatre, rather than the usual ART playhouse, and the reason for the choice is clear — to make the audience feel even more a part of this gruesomely intense event.
The Hasty Pudding Theatre is more old-fashioned and less decorative.
When entering the theater, there are several noises playing in the background — a woman's laugher verging on hysteria, the sound of running water and a shovel being dragged on the ground.
All these sounds bring you closer to the action at hand, making you feel like you are a part of the action rather than just the observer.
The play opens with David having a drink with his friend Lorraine (Peggy Trecker), who has been sent by Gordon to convince him to come back to Vancouver and deal with the events from high school. He agrees, and later we meet Gordon and his lovely wife Anne (Sarah Howe), who appear to have a good marriage despite Gordon's past infidelity.
Lage and Howe do an excellent job playing off each other, making a creepily perfect couple.
The play has a slow start, but quickly picks up when David talks to Peter and finds out what has made him decide to confess.
The contrast between their different reactions to the extreme guilt they have had to bear is fixating to watch. While Peter has become a nervous wreck and cannot sleep, David has become cold and apathetic to the guilt.
Brown makes David the most intense character in the play and does it well.
During this scene, David rotates between apathy and passion, trying to convince Peter not to confess, yet almost not caring in the process.
David seems to be the voice of the writer, Robert William Sherwood, and tries to persuade Peter that the words he uses to condemn himself for what they did are only words. His rejection of morals becomes the theme for the play. The crime is so ambiguous that there is no way to say if it was moral or not, or rather who to condemn for this lack of morality.
With a plot such as this, it isn't surprising that Scott Zigler was chosen as the director. The acting is worthy of a David Mamet production — in such a concise play, every actor must be perfect or else the entire production sinks. Luckily, each actor seems entirely appropriate for the role and adds a lot to the production.
More than anything else, it is the contrast between characters that makes the play intriguing. Brown and Lage's strengths eloquently compliments the weaknesses of Evett and Howe.
While Lage's Gordon is the man you love to hate, he doesn't have the passion Evett and Brown wield.
Evett beautifully conveys the desperation that comes about when you barely understand who you are anymore.
Brown also gives an amazing performance, bringing existentialism into this neo-noir piece in a way so subtle it seems natural.
In the program, Sherwood admits his play has been influenced by an infamous Canadian murder that occurred in the early 1970s. In this case, the entire town knew the identity of the killers, but because the victim was Native American, nothing was said.
Sherwood says of this in the program, "Absolution does not reconstruct the...murder. It tells its own tale. Nevertheless, Absolution...begins with something its authors had once forgotten, and which mere words have failed to make real."
The Boston Globe
Three young men kill a woman and cover it up. When they meet several years later, under the threat of exposure, will these past events destroy their lives? There have been books, plays, even TV movies that deal with such a question; one of Ruth Rendell's best novels (as Barbara Vine), A Fatal Inversion, for example, has a similar plot.
The twist that Robert William Sherwood brings to the story in Absolution - the American Repertory Theatre's farewell performance at the Hasty Pudding Theatre, which will be undergoing renovation next year - is the mixture of neo-noir storytelling with neo-existentialist philosophizing.
Thanks to a sparkling production directed by Scott Zigler, the result is 90 minutes of intriguing drama, even if in the end there's very little neo under the sun in this terrain. Absolution is a play that feels more haunted than haunting, its characters consumed by ghosts that don't quite have the power to go home with the audience.
Each of the three male characters symbolizes a certain emptiness. Peter, played by ART mainstay Benjamin Evett, has found religion; Gordon (Jordan Lage) has become a successful businessman. As we are seeing them mainly through the hollow eyes of David (Brennan Brown), though, it is clear that neither God nor mammon is of any use in providing the absolution of the title.
Now this could all get very silly, very Paris-in-the-'40s, if it weren't for some superb acting and fine production values. Brown, in particular, makes for a winning meld of a young Joe Mantegna and Kevin Spacey. (Director Zigler is a close associate of David Mamet's, so perhaps he helped Brown deaden his affect, a la Mantegna, before making the hairs on your neck pay attention to the desperation of his Spacey-like iceman.) ART Institute alumnae Sarah Howe and Peggy Trecker don't have as much to do as the men (another lesson learned from Mamet?), but Sherwood has to be happy with what the five actors have given his play. The ART could do worse than have all of them make Cambridge a stop in future seasons.
Christine Jones's sets give the proceedings a dazzle, whether it's the sleek modernity of Gordon's apartment or carved-out trysting places for Trecker and the men in her life. Karen Eister's costumes, David Remedios's sound, and John Ambrosone's lighting are all a treat for eyes and ears.
It's also rewarding to hear Sherwood's gift for Mamet-like dialogue without the Mamet-speak. He is a talented writer, whether using language effectively to undermine the effectiveness of using language or describing how economic injustice makes other kinds of justice impossible. Like Undershaft in Major Barbara, Gordon succeeds in a world where exploitation is common.
But if Sherwood is to live up to such comparisons, his characters have to stand up to Shaw's - and that's where Absolution does not satisfy. To convince us that the world outside the Hasty Pudding is nearly as corrupt and empty as what's happening onstage, Sherwood has to provide us with characters who have some philosophical meat on their bones.
It's easy to dismiss the rantings of a born-again hick, or the smugness of a greed-is-good master of the universe. Too easy, in fact: Sherwood can't engage us intellectually if he's so dismissive toward key characters. He has to give them the same weight that, say, Graham Greene gives the priest and the communist in his novel Monsignor Quixote.
As it is, Absolution is a taut, engaging 90 minutes of theater, but if we are going to take these characters home with us, they need to sing for their supper with a song we haven't heard before.