In The Long Shrift, a play that marks James Franco’s debut as a New York stage director, a high school student is sentenced to ten years in prison for raping his date. But five years into his imprisonment, she recants, and pushes to get him released. Five years after that, they finally meet, on the eve of their high school’s tenth reunion – and confront one another over the actual truth of what happened.
It is a potentially intriguing story, all the more promising since the playwright is Robert Boswell, the author of such acclaimed novel as The Geography of Desire.
But, as it turns out, too little in “The Long Shrift” feels credible or worthy of our attention, with odd, disorienting or outlandish scenes undermining what could have been a swift and thought-provoking (rather than endless and confusing) 100 minutes.
The most persuasive scenes are the ones that begin and end the play. At the start, we see Ally Sheedy and Brian Lally, as Richard’s parents Sarah and Henry, moving into a drab wood-paneled hovel of a home. It’s been ten months since Richard’s imprisonment and they have had to give up their beautiful house to pay their son’s lawyer. The move disturbs Sarah, who has a weak heart, and who has refused to visit her son – because she thinks him guilty. Henry, a Vietnam vet, is more optimistic, and more loyal.
In the last scene of the play, it is nine years later, and Richard (Scott Haze) and Beth (Ahna O’Reilly) talk about that night ten years earlier, and how it’s affected both their lives.
But in-between, we are introduced to Macy (Allie Gallerani), the cartoonish self-involved current president of the student body of the high school, who pushes Richard and Beth to appear as the star attraction at the 10th year reunion, as a way to boost her chances of getting into an Ivy League school. This makes just about no sense, and is followed by one of the most poorly staged reunion scenes I have ever seen – Richard rips off his shirt to show a huge Nazi swastika on his chest (was he forced to get this tattoo in prison?) and launches into what’s apparently meant to be a bitterly sarcastic tirade against his unsupportive former classmates. Meanwhile, the two women stand on the stage with them as if they’re not sure what to do; the awkwardness seems less that of the characters than of the playwright and director.
It is hard to begrudge James Franco’s foray into directing Off-Broadway. While working on “The Long Shrift,” he was performing eight times a week in “Of Mice and Men,” his Broadway acting debut. It is surely the case that Franco by his very presence has done more for New York theater this season than all us harping theater critics put together. One benefit of his work on Boswell’s play is that it brings attention to a question that few theatergoers probably bother to ask, much less attempt to answer: What exactly does a stage director do? In this case, the answer seems clear: Not enough.
The Long Shrift
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
By Robert Boswell; directed by James Franco; sets by Andromache Chalfant; costumes by Jessica Pabst; lighting by Burke Brown; sound by Bart Fasbender; fight director, UnkleDave’s Fight-House; special effects design by Jeremy Chernick; Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.
Cast: Allie Gallerani (Macy), Scott Haze (Richard), Brian Lally (Henry), Ahna O’Reilly (Beth) and Ally Sheedy (Sarah).
Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission
Theater tickets: $20. Students: $5
“The Long Shrift” is scheduled to run through Aug. 23