Friday, May 6, 2016

1. Review: CRUDE (seen May 3, 2016)

“No Gushers Here”

Stars range from 5-1.

Jordan Jaffe’s
Crude, now getting its world premiere at Ars Nova (although not an Ars Nova production), might have made a tight, bright little play about the battle between big oil and environmental activism if he had somehow found a way to focus it on the attractive, young, Houston couple at its heart. Jaime (Nico Tortorella, of TV’s “Younger”) and Brittany (Eliza Huberth) represent the opposite poles of the dynamic: he’s the scion of Kurtz Petroleum (KP), a major Gulf Coast oil producer; she’s the director of the activist Wetlands of Texas Foundation (could its acronym be saying something?). Jaime and Brittany have a potential Mary Matalin-James Carville or Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy Adam’s Rib vibe that could have made for an interesting, humorous debate about corporate responsibility for the effect of fossil fuels on the ecology.

Nico Tortorella, Eliza Huberth. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
This isn’t to say that the well-acted play—produced by Houston’s Black Lab Theatre, where it's said to be headed after New York—doesn’t offer some worthwhile thoughts; it’s just that its socially important concerns are buried in a playwriting spill of marital squabbling and irresponsible behavior that are more concerned with the personalities involved than the larger issues. Crude covers its potentially potent ideas with sitcom attitudes the way the dispersant Corexit dissipates oil into smaller particles; it may look better on the surface but the underlying problem remains.
Nico Tortorella, W. Tre Davis. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
After a single film about a cancer-causing fire retardant, Jaime gave up his career as a documentarian for the security of doing PR commercials for his father’s firm; yup, he’s sold his soul. Brittany—her blonde hair, tight electric blue dress, and silver necklace (costumes by Sydney Maresca) making her look more like Ivanka Trump than an obsessive environmentalist—is Jaime’s opposite. Also from a family in the fossil fuel business, she’s taken the righteous path and wants to reduce her carbon footprint; she even scolds Jaime for drinking water from a plastic bottle. When KP becomes responsible for “the largest oil spill in the history of the planet,” the shallow, self-involved Jaime—the kind of temperamental guy who can’t bear his wife’s slightest criticism—is more concerned about how he can sell his dad on a national campaign of PR commercials than with what he calls Brittany’s “environmental bullshit.” She rushes off, taking their aging, loose-bowelled dog Ralph with her, intending to move her organization into action.
Nico Tortorella, Jose Joaquin Perez. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
With Brittany’s absence robbing us of the chance to watch the home fire sparks fly, the play moves into bromance territory with the arrival of Aaron (W. Tré Davis), Jaime’s buddy and coworker, who bases his decisions on the I Ching, as they brainstorm a PR spot to impress Jaime’s dad. Along comes Manny (Jose Joaquin Perez), a Latino drug dealer Aaron’s asked to sell them weed and molly. Cue the drug-taking (some of it anally ingested, if you’re interested), and the inane behavior that follows as we watch these jerks spin the oil disaster into face-saving horse manure. The satire, which brings to mind those upbeat post-spill BP commercials, has its moments but has too heavy a hand.
W. Tre Davis, Nico Tortorella. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
It’s with Manny that Jaime has the play’s best argument, about oil addiction versus drug addiction. Manny’s day job, by the way—if you can believe it of someone who says “What do you got?”—is helping kids with their SAT writing skills and college admissions essays. There’s a lot of peripheral fodder involving hiring Manny to kidnap Ralph, Jaime’s worries over losing his money if KP’s stock sinks, Aaron’s sexual escapades, WTF’s honorable refusal of Kurtz money, and so on.
Nico Tortorella. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
Under Kel Haney’s brisk direction, the four actors (especially the promising Huberth) do all in their power to make their shallow characters credible but there’s too much working against them, including Caite Hevner’s blandly generic living room setting, which, given Brittany’s taste in clothes, should be more of a showplace. Like the play’s misleading advertising photos of the characters wearing soiled yellow hazmat suits, what you see in Crude is not what you get. Dig, if you will, but there are no gushers here.


Ars Nova
511 West Fifty-Fourth Street, NYC
Through May 21