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Broadway Review

High

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High
Photo Source: Joan Marcus
There are 20 names in the producing credits for playwright Matthew Lombardo's three-person drama "High," starring Kathleen Turner as a foulmouthed recovering alcoholic nun trying to help a drug-addicted male hustler. As this well-intentioned but poorly written script played out, all I kept thinking was, "Didn't any of them see 'Looped'?" That was Lombardo's poorly written female-star-of-a-certain-age vehicle that tanked on Broadway last season. The same outcome for his latest effort seems highly likely.

Nineteen-year-old Cody Randall has been found unconscious from a drug overdose in a hotel room, alongside the dead body of a 14-year-old boy who shows signs of having been sodomized. Father Delpapp, in charge of a Catholic rehab facility, wants Sister Connelly, a counselor there, to treat Cody, who has been charged only with possession of drugs. But she is resistant and suspicious. The boy's not a Catholic and doesn't want to get clean; worse, his troubled history makes him a much more serious case than St. Francis usually takes. Nevertheless, agree she does, apparently out of guilt for owing Father Delpapp a favor. The priest wants her to "remove the compulsion and replace it with faith," but the hard-driving nun finds Cody a difficult nut to crack. As treatment continues, secrets spill out, and Father Delpapp's unusual interest in the case becomes more comprehensible, as does Sister Connelly's reluctance. Will she succeed, or will Cody destroy his putative saviors?

The numbingly repetitive structure regularly rotates among backstory-revealing soliloquies for Sister Connelly, combative scenes between her and the priest, and treatment scenes between her and Cody. The climax, of course, brings all three characters together. Unfortunately, no character achieves flesh-and-blood humanity; instead, each is a collection of carefully chosen neuroses, weaknesses, and secrets intended to dovetail with each other to create a desired outcome. In that vein, everyone behaves at one time or another in unbelievable ways, because the playwright needs them to do so. Lombardo's flair for snappy laugh lines, ironically, does him no favors. They too often fail to come across as gallows humor and instead only trivialize the dark and depressing subject matter, most damagingly in Sister Connelly's final, post-climax soliloquy. There's also an unfortunate use of sensationalistic and gratuitous nudity in an attempt to bring down the Act 1 curtain with a bang.

Rob Ruggiero's obvious direction does little to mask the writing's flaws, nor do the actors transcend them. The fiery Turner reminds us of her ability to command a stage, but she's hard-pressed to find Sister Connelly's emotional fragility, despite the fact that the plot depends on it. Stephen Kunken, who last season shone brightly while going down with the "Enron" ship, is less successful here, unconvincing as a bullying administrator but then equally unpersuasive in the simple-mindedly weak and foolish choices his character makes. Evan Jonigkeit brings an admirably focused intensity to Cody but provides little variance in the character's surly defiance and textbook anguish.

Lombardo has written a preface to his play about his own problems with substance abuse, and it's more arresting and moving than anything on stage at the Booth Theatre. Fictionalizing such personal subject matter, alas, may not have been the way to go for this far-too-facile playwright.

Presented by Leonard Soloway, Chase Mishkin, Terry Schnuck, Ann Cady Scott, Timothy J. Hampton, James and Catherine Berges, Craig D. Schnuck, Barbara and Buddy Freitag, Lauren Class Schneider, David Mirvish, Gene Fisch Jr./Stu Sternbach, David Fagin, Jacki Barlia Florin/Michael A. Alden and Lizabeth Zindel, the Shubert Organization, and the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis at the Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., NYC. Opened April 19 for an open run. Tue.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. Casting by Pat McCorkle.

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