After nailing down a time to see veteran playwright Lyle Kessler’s new play for The Amoralists, I received an intriguing follow-up: “Please note, there’s been a change in the play’s tone that has evolved during the rehearsal process and The Amoralists are now billing the play as a drama, not a black comedy as originally announced.” Well, all right then. There’s no reason to stick with preconceived notions if other notions have emerged during rehearsal, right? But some members of the audience tittered nervously anyway during the first scene, in which the domineering Grange (James Kautz) instantly puts his malleable college roommate Bromley (Nick Lawson) under his thumb, taking the bed he wants in their dorm room like a totalitarian dictator taking control of a neighboring country (or, as Grange himself puts it, like an American settler in a land grab). After having sex with the vulnerable Doe (Anna Stromberg), Grange coerces her into having sex with Bromley right afterward.
Both Lawson and Stromberg try to make their characters something more than dim bulbs just following this guy’s orders, but Doe and Bromley come off as imbeciles anyway as they continue to do as they are told. Grange even gets Bromley to physically attack the erudite and condescending Professor Denton (Michael Cullen), which be-wilderingly makes the Professor over into another toady for Grange. When the tough gun-dealer Renel (Craig "muMs" Grant) lets himself get played by Grange in the worst possible way, it feels less bewildering than totally false.
For Collision (through February 17) to have a chance of working, or even a chance of being remotely believable, the actor playing Grange would have to be effortlessly commanding and physically threatening; Kautz is miscast in the role, too eager and peppy and likable to make us believe that Grange is a cruel leader who could win a small cult of followers. The first two scenes in which Grange asserts his control over Bromley and Doe just about squeak by, but there isn’t a whiff of believability in his mastery over the Professor and Renel; no actor could possibly make these scenes work.
In between the power plays are lots of fatty monologues about the meaning of life and the back stories of the characters, none of which illuminate the drama at hand. Nothing rings true here, not even the set design (there aren’t many college students in 2013 who are putting up posters of Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain). And when Grange and his followers start training to shoot up the school, it feels as if Kessler started off with one kind of play (a dark comedy about power) and tried to twist Collision into another (a social comment on guns in our society) because of the reignited debate about guns in America. It winds up being around one third of a promising play that gets lost in implausible characterization and flatulent philosophizing.