Orange Flower Water, the sophomore show from New Century Theatre Company, isn’t much of a play but you’d never know it from the bracing quartet of actors squeezing every last drop of fragrant poison out of the text.
Craig Wright’s brisk (75-minute), funny, subtly ferocious script unfortunately doesn’t boast anything compellingly theatrical—no reason for it to be on stage as opposed to, say, seen on TV (where, chopped up over several episodes following a story arc, it would make an observant drama). It just wants to sound “real,” which it engagingly does but which doesn’t give it a lot of weight in the heightened world of a theater space. It’s only inherent theatrical device is a hoary old need to give each one of the actors a monologue in the form of a letter recited directly to the audience. The rest is composed of interlocking, two-person sketches that could be pulled from a particularly polished edition of Scenes for Professional Actors—with a formidable emphasis, in this case, on professional.
The letter that opens the evening is from Cathy (Jennifer Lee Taylor), who reads a loving list of last-minute instructions for her husband David (Hans Altwies) to follow while she’s out of town leading the school choir and he’s left to watch their kids. Pharmacist David, unbeknownst to Cathy, is just beginning to cheat with Beth (Betsy Schwartz), a stay-at-home mom whose strained marriage to self-confessed “palooka” Brad (Ray Gonzalez) makes her more than willing to hear David’s seductive pleas for “a moment of goodness in a life that is way too short.” Beth suffers religious guilt from their dalliances as well as several bouts of practicality: “What happens,” she asks David, “when you don’t love me anymore?”
We watch as each of these people grapple with the answer to that question, and director Allison Narver deftly tracks the hairpin curves and painful dead ends that at any given moment turn a heated encounter between two people into a very bumpy ride. And they are heated—there’s a hot, sad, angry sex scene between Cathy and David after Brad has informed Cathy of their respective spouses’ affair that serves as a useful primer on how limited the standard definition of “making love” proves to be.
Narver’s handling of the actors gives the performances such uniform ease—no one demands a pat on the back for agile delivery of the mile-a-minute arguments—that you almost relax too much and start nitpicking (a very nimble Altwies perhaps sidesteps his suburban lothario’s baser motivations, Schwartz’s endearing little-girl-lost desperation inches ever closer to mugging, etc.) But it’s only nitpicking: Everyone on stage creates a fully realized human being. Gonzalez’s cuckold is both jerk and average joe; every time Taylor appears she reveals another dent in Cathy’s controlled veneer (it’s the evening’s most well-rounded turn).
The gifted scenic artist Matthew Smucker’s confounding decision to trap the action between two oppressive walls seems—along with sound designer Robertson Witmer’s brooding bits of music piped in at random intervals—to want to pinch us into some sideways notion that we might be watching a more glib No Exit.
No dice. Sartre, this ain’t. Wright leaves us nothing to chew on. We haven’t learned anything new or been shown something old from a new perspective. David, who must be watching a lot of Woody Allen in between philandering and pharmacy, says “People are always hurting each other and love keeps happening.” Agreed. And?
The best news, aside from the evening’s undeniable entertainment value, is that Orange Flower Water proclaims the versatility and staying power of what looks to be this town’s next important theater company.