Does it still count as a collision if there's no impact? That's the main question audiences will have as this annoying pebble of a play, unconvincingly titled "Collision," is finally tapped out of our collective shoe.
The Amoralists, the impressively gifted troupe that set the bar extraordinarily high with "The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side," unfortunately misfires as they showcase another unconventional quartet of disaffected souls at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.
Lyle Kessler, most famous for his 1983 Steppenwolf play "Orphans," also about frustrated outcasts, tries to resuscitate the kind of play the last 30 years have turned into a cliché. If you want to gain any insights behind the mass shootings of late, you won't find them here.
It's all set in a college dormitory, and the iPods tell us the tale unfolds today. This is an important point, as the artwork actor James Kautz hangs on the walls in the opening moments would suggest otherwise. Posters of Janis Joplin, Che Guevara, Bob Marley, "A Clockwork Orange" and Kurt Cobain could only mean one of two things: either the play is set in the distant past or we are to take the premature and gratuitous demises of these rebels as a nihilistic harbinger of things to come.
Of course that interpretation could only give away the play's entire trajectory. But director David Fofi has more faith in his sense of cleverness than in his audience's sense of perception. Had the characters in this play put on this play, this is probably what they would have come up with.
Kautz and Nick Lawson, who were so splendid in The Amoralists' last production, essentially recycle their performances here, only without the charm or depth. Kautz plays Grange, the ringleader of what will become a militant group of wannabe intellectuals. He's a loudmouthed manipulator from the first moment, and he never lets up. The quirks and tics that almost seem to be the actor's trademark do not serve him well here, they only serve as red flags.
Lawson has allowed his hair to grow out since "The Pied Pipers," and the dark mop he sports makes him resemble America's answer to the late Richard Beckinsale (for those who appreciate an obscure but no less apt a reference). If his performance had the humanity that someone like Beckinsale could have brought to it, perhaps the play would contain some of the insight it is currently lacking.
Lawson has a gift for making the words of a script organic, and for scoring hearty laughs with punchlines delivered behind the beat. But what he's allowed to phone in here is nothing more than pedestrian muttering.
The rest of the actors, solid performers, are still stuck in the same lousy production. Michael Cullen is the quintessential tenured professor, but why he so easily succumbs to a pretentious freshman charlatan like Grange taxes the patience.
Kessler has belched out a play so generalized, so lacking in specificity, that we aren't even sure what Cullen is supposed to be a professor of, or what anyone else is there to study.
Grange isn't praised for his grades or extracurricular drive, but for his, and I quote, "thoughts and extrapolations." That about sums it up. The targets of the group's hatred, strata of society at large, are never given any stage time to justify the vitriol, and so everyone comes off as a shallow lightweight. Given the inanity and nonstop palaver on display, we can only assume the college in question is the University of Phoenix, or maybe Brown.
For the only genuine fun the evening offers, when Cullen's professor lectures about "the relativity of being," tell yourself he's supposed to be teaching a driver's ed class. The play never says he's not.
Anna Stromberg offers more than competent work as Doe, but she still has to get naked and simulate an orgasm for the privilege. Given the play's overall vacuity, that's about all that segment amounts to. Director Fifo attempts to be an artist and a gentleman with hackneyed lighting cues during her more vulnerable poses, but it's still a little like pimping her out in much the same way Grange does over and over.
Craig "muMs" Grant is effective as the streetwise criminal element. But six seasons playing the streetwise criminal element on "Oz" doesn't make this feat much of a stretch.
If any of the above strikes one as vicious, the critique is not rendered with any relish or glee. The Amoralists have made the unforgivable mistake of proving themselves talented, innovative and daring. We must expect more from people like this, and not simply obey if Liza opts to lip-sync.
Cynical minds might blame Steppenwolf. "Orphans" is set for a Broadway revival this year, and Steppenwolf co-founder Terry Kinney was originally announced to direct "Collision." The Amoralists are the closest thing New York has had to a vibrant company of non-celebrities, and it's not inconceivable that Chicago's favorite theatrical franchise might have taken these heirs-apparent for a ride, a (very) dry run for the main event later on.
But friends don't let friends drive drunk. A driver's ed class might have come in handy after all.
"Collision" runs until Feb. 17 at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place in Manhattan. For tickets and info, call 866-811-4111 or visit www.collisiontheplay.com.