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A CurtainUp Review
Revenge and Guilt
By Jacob Horn

"The only two things that motivate me and that matter to me are revenge and guilt."— Elvis Costello
Revenge and Guilt
Peter Buck Dettmann and Emily Russell
(Photo credit: Bryan Smith)
Sometimes, it's hard to let things go. We go through life haunted by the memories of our own mistakes and failed dreams, while also bearing the scars from times we have been wronged by others. As Elvis Costello's words indicate, revenge and guilt are two powerful forces that act on many of us more so than we would probably like to admit. Marc Spitz's new play (with which the playwright also makes his directorial debut), named Revenge and Guilt after Costello's quote, however, has no qualms about placing these themes front and center, exploring how we carry the past with us and asking what happens when we decide to confront it.

Spitz considers himself a "downtown playwright" and has a background as a music journalist. Both these elements of his identity come into play in his script.

In a bar in downtown Manhattan, Cal (Peter Buck Dettmann) and Gina (Emily Russell) meet. "Meet" isn't actually the right word, since they've already slept together. It ended poorly — Gina stole Cal's Rolex, so Cal has returned to confront her. Cal has gone through life blaming a cruel middle school guitar teacher for destroying his dreams of musical stardom, while Gina is the kind of person who would fake a seizure to help steal from a liquor store.

The interactions between the two are initially hostile, but hostility has a way of yielding to romance, and before long the two are back in bed together. As they begin to open up to one another about their pasts, Gina convinces Cal to go confront his old teacher, Marvin "Major" Cohen (Tom Vaught). But unsurprisingly, she may have ulterior motives.

These characters fluctuate within moments between believable and incomprehensible, dynamic and cliched. It's easy to stereotype them: Cal is the neurotic Jewish boy from Long Island; Gina is the girl with the troubled past who guards herself with a tough exterior; and Major is the drugged-out, past-his-prime rocker who never quite hit the big time as he thought he would.

The characters start to reveal more depth once they arrive at Major's house in Act II and we learn more about their true motivations, but while some of these revelations do complicate our earlier understandings, it's hard to escape the first act impression of them as simplistic.

The performances are certainly entertaining, with Vaught in particular a crowd pleaser. He comes into the role perfectly and proves to be a commanding presence whenever he is on stage. Cal seems the best developed character, which may be because Spitz has imbued him with elements of his own past, which helps Dettmann to effectively pull off the role. Russell faces a tougher task of finding a way to show us that there's more to Gina than just aggression. While Spitz clearly wants us to sympathize with Gina, her constant testiness towards Cal, even during their most intimate moments, makes it hard to do so.

For that matter, it's never really convincing that Gina and Cal make sense as a couple — which may be exactly what Spitz wants, since the nature of the relationship seems deliberately ambiguous. When Gina tells Cal, "Oh, we're not dating yet, Sugar Pop . . . I only date men," for example, it's nearly impossible to tell if this is merely a provocation to get Cal to agree to go out to Long Island to confront Major or if she really isn't convinced he's worth her time. That might be precisely the playwright/director's intention, but from out in the audience, I found it hard to buy. And, without giving anything away, I'll also say that I found this ambiguity all the more frustrating in light of the play's end.

The technical components of the production, while minimal, do a good job of using the Kraine's small stage to create several different environments. Andrew Diaz's sets and Joshua Rose's lighting nicely complement the "downtown" vibe of Spitz's play.

On the whole, the performance I saw felt a bit like a work in progress. The characters still lacked depth at times. The timing was close but not always as quick as it needed to be. It's likely that as the run at the Kraine continues that some of these issues will naturally correct themselves; others may lie a bit deeper within the script. Though sometimes you can see the seams showing a bit too much, in the unpolished downtown world that Spitz holds dear, that might even be fitting.

Revenge and Guilt
Written and Directed by Marc Spitz

Cast: Peter Buck Dettmann (Cal), Emily Russell (Gina), Tom Vaught (Marvin "Major" Cohen)
Set Design: Andrew Diaz
Costume Design: Niki Kanodia
Lighting Design: Joshua Rose
Stage Manager: Laurel Detkin
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes with intermission
Kraine Theater, 85 E. 4th Street
For tickets:
From 9/19/2013; opening 09/21/2013; closing 10/19/2013
Performance times: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; $22
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 9/19/13 performance
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