David Schwimmer’s play ‘Trust’ reviewed
Eyes wide open, jaw halfway to the floor, David Schwimmer looked absolutely riveted each time I spied him watching the world premiere Saturday night of his latest play “Trust,” being performed through April 25 at Lookingglass Theatre Company. Perhaps Schwimmer was extra emotional given the big news he was set to announce the next day, but there’s no denying that the former “Friends” star (who apparently wishes to distance himself from the role that made him big, burying “Friends” in his theater bio after “The Pallbearer” and “Six Days, Seven Nights”) is passionately invested in the play’s difficult subject matter, about the devastating emotional burden afflicting rape victims and their families. Schwimmer has been an advocate for the Rape Treatment Center in Santa Monica, California for a decade, and he’s so committed to exploring the themes in “Trust” that not only has he co-written and co-directed this play, but he also just finished directing the film version upon which its based, starring Clive Owen and Catherine Keener, out late this year or in 2011.
There are some very good intentions behind “Trust.” Lookingglass is teaming up with Rape Victim Advocates to host post-show discussions, weekly panels and the services of a trained volunteer for each show. But good intentions don’t always give way to great theater, and that is certainly the case here. Schwimmer and co-writer Andy Bellin (who co-wrote the “Trust” screenplay with Rob Festinger) are so devoted to advocating an issue through this play that they have neglected to write a very good one. Aside from a few effective scenes elevated primarily by three strong actors, “Trust” comes across like a well researched but dramatically hollow after school special.
The primary reason “Trust” doesn’t work is because the characters aren’t believably written. We’re introduced to a perfectly lovely, happy-go-lucky Wilmette family whose every move and word feels phony. Schwimmer and Bellin toss in topical references to Robert Pattinson, Twitter and Beyoncé that come off like check list points when they need to feel organic. And since when does a 14-year-old girl liken herself to Tony Soprano, which happens in this play? Only when an out of touch 43-year-old is writing things for her to say. Schwimmer and Bellin are obviously trying to make this family seem like your average, everyday brood, so the audience can better relate to the “this could happen to you” horror that tears them apart. But the family is so cookie cutter they barely register as human beings, and thus, it’s difficult to relate to them, or to even believe that they are real.
Schwimmer and Bellin are better at handling the back and forth between 14-year-old freshman Annie (Allison Torem) and her initially unseen online boyfriend “Charlie” (Raymond Fox). The conventionally written conversations, projected on a video screen backdrop that otherwise distracts throughout the play, nevertheless captures the all-encompassing, emotionally charged courtship between young teens in love – except Charlie turns out to be a man twenty years Annie’s senior. In secret, Annie agrees to meet Charlie at a mall, and while startled by his physical appearance, she’s wooed by his sweet, sad words. In making himself pitiful, and in making Annie feel like she’s special, Annie consents to being with Charlie, and before long, she is in his motel room. These scenes are effectively unnerving, aided by Torem and Fox’s performances; how could they not be? But Annie is such a flat character that the actions fail to match the same level of horror and heartbreak evoked, for instance, in “The Long Red Road,” playing across town at the Goodman, which also places a teenage girl in sexual peril. That play’s sophisticated staging makes you feel what that character is going through, but Schwimmer and co-director Heidi Stillman opt for the easy shock effect.
A few days later, Annie’s mother Lynn (Amy J. Carle) and her father Will (Philip R. Smith) find out that their daughter was raped. A manhunt involving a dedicated but exhausted FBI agent (Morocco Omari) ensues, but Schwimmer and Bellin aren’t so much interested in having Charlie get his comeuppance as they are in analyzing how this act of statutory rape has damaged Annie and Will. (Lynn’s reaction, inexplicably, is barely explored.) Thus, the play avoids becoming an episode of “Criminal Minds,” but its approach to the topic and characters still suggests a Lifetime movie. It is interesting to see Annie and Will approach the tragedy in such different ways (Annie maintains a sense of denial, Will becomes obsessive and vengeful). Still, the characters are more like pawns than they are flesh and blood, and while Torem sobs effectively and Smith anguishes capably, they come across like skilled actors in an exercise rather than a daughter and a father coming to terms. And in true after school special fashion, the often-combative pair reaches an understanding and hugs it out all too easily and suddenly to be believed.
Given how earnest and well-intentioned “Trust” is, I wish it was good enough to warrant that exasperated look I saw on Schwimmer’s face. Maybe he’ll have better luck with the movie version, but I’m not holding out much hope.
“Trust” runs through April 25 at Lookingglass Theatre Company, 821 N. Michigan. $18-62. Click here for the schedule and to purchase tickets.