There's a moment late in “Radiance,” Cusi Cram's diffuse world premiere one-act play about the consequences of the atomic bomb, in which reporter William Laurence (played by a good, if underused, Kelly AuCoin) and stiff Air Force pilot Paul W. Tibbets (a truly remarkable Aaron Roman Weiner) sit down for an all-too-brief heart-to-heart about what exactly will happen when the bomb is dropped. Their conversation is an up-close view of what it looks like when a man who wants to tell the world about the wonders of the future comes face to face with the man who will change it—but who can't tell anyone, not even himself, about the consequences of what he's about to do.
That flashback is sadly the only good scene in the show, which is loosely based on true events. Cram's play follows not Laurence and Tibbets, but Tibbets’s Enola Gay co-pilot Robert A. Lewis (Kohl Sudduth, who, quite understandably, doesn't appear to know what to do during the play's first half). When we meet him in the mid-’50s, Lewis is a loose-cannon drunk who despondently wanders off the set of “This Is Your Life”—where he's about to encounter one of the A-bomb's victims—and into a bar tended by May (Ana Reeder), a sexy hard-luck case straight out of a James M. Cain novel. They are introduced as her no-good, cheating boyfriend/boss slinks off to get her severance pay (she's decided she's done with him), and the pair begin to talk about... stuff.
At this point, several questions begin to arise. Why is Reeder doing an impression of Marilyn Monroe? Why do so many sequential lines of dialogue sound like total non-sequiturs? Why do Reeder and Sudduth’s characters appear to know each other as soon as he enters the bar? What does their conversation have to do with anything? The answers, and the blame, lie with director Suzanne Agins, whose approach to the work is most generously described as uncertain. No two scenes or characters seem to inhabit the same play. I've seen nearly all of these actors before in one play or another, but I've never seen them behave as though they weren't on stage with anyone else, until now.
And this is sort of a shame, because Cram does have some interesting questions to raise with “Radiance.” For instance, is the sticky, public medium of television an appropriate venue for national reconciliation? Is the average American capable of, or even interested in, burying the hatchet with anyone? How do you atone for an act of destruction as huge as dropping Little Boy, especially if all your countrymen consider you a hero while you didn't even understand what you were doing?
These are questions consummately worth asking, but they get lost in the labyrinthine staging and borderline nonsensical line readings that are this production's calling card. In competent directorial hands, it's almost certain that this play could do more.
Presented by the Labyrinth Theater Company at the Bank Street Theater, 155 Bank St., NYC. Nov. 16–Dec. 8. (212) 513-1080 or www.LABtheater.org.
Critic’s Score: C-