A lot of plays fail simply because they can't find any justification for their own existences. They die quietly, sinking under the weight of their unintended dreariness or inessentiality or silliness — the three qualities that, together, comprise the silent killers of the regional theater world. Today, these killers do their ugly work at the Women's Theatre Project in Fort Lauderdale, where local luminary Marj O'Neill-Butler's play True Blue is trying to enjoy its world premiere.
O'Neill-Butler has had her hands in everything: the Inside Out Theatre Company, the Theatre League of South Florida, the Carbonells, the Women's Theatre Project, the Miami Beach Arts Trust, and so much more — a printed version of her résumé would decimate a rain forest. I know from personal experience that she's quite a good actress, and knowledgeable people tell me she's a fine director. I've also heard that she's one of our better local playwrights. If this is true, then True Blue is a considerable misstep.
It's a play with many problems, all of which are subtle and the most obvious of which is purely conceptual: True Blue is less a serious drama than a Lifetime original movie waiting to be made. True Blue follows a little under a year in the lives of five women, all of whom work as undercover police officers. By easy inference, we can tell the women have a history: They gather, play games, drink beer, tell bawdy jokes, and generally do the things women do when they're close friends. Then tragedy strikes, and two of the women's husbands are found dead in semicompromising positions. The bereaved officers — who also, by some crazy coincidence, happen to be sisters — have very different ways of dealing with their losses. One, the gregarious Carol (Angie Radosh), stays at home, forgets to shower, and eats fast food. The other, meek, prude little Linda (Laura Turnbull), turns into an alcoholic and whores around town. Faced with their friends' imminent self-destruction, the women band together to help the bereaved officers on their journey toward acceptance, healing, and hope.
Despite the cheesebag premise, True Blue could work if it took a novel approach to its subjects — if it made the women's friendship somehow unique, if the suffering of its women were the specific sufferings of specific women, if we could feel for even a moment that these characters had some kind of lives beyond the suburban living room where the play takes place. But in a thousand tiny failures, True Blue snuffs out such possibilities. When the women gather as friends before the tragedy, their banter is purely generic — they talk dirty, tickle one another, make jokes about one another's weight. If they didn't occasionally say things like "you're in the wrong business — all we see is sex, shit, blood, and guts," you'd never know if they were cops, social workers, or waitresses. Nor do we receive any hint of where this is all taking place — it could be Pittsburgh or Plantation, Boise or Bangor.
True Blue's lack of specificity creeps into every aspect of the play, most severely in terms of character development. We seldom see these women do anything that defines them: Their half-formed histories and personalities are revealed almost exclusively through banal anecdotes. A typical example: To bring Carol out of the torpor of grief, her friends throw her a surprise birthday party at which they play a charades-like game that they've invented for the occasion. In it, the women are asked a series of questions. "Tell us about the person you most admire," one says cop to another. It's a rigged game, of course; the answers are all about Carol. The woman being questioned, Julie (Patti Gardner), gushes about a "person I work with... bigger than life... the partner every cop dreams of... generous to a fault." Julie then talks about a time her mother visited town when Julie herself was preoccupied with work. Apparently, Carol took up the slack, brought Julie's mother to her own house, let Julie's mother crash in her spare bedroom, and made a lovely meal. As this is being revealed, Carol casts her eyes down and makes modest little protestations. "Julie, don't," she says.
Please understand that this takes place about eight minutes into Act II. Up to this moment, we have received no indication that Carol is "bigger than life" or any of the rest of Julie's honeyed description. If Julie had instead called Carol a "shitty partner" and a "selfish bitch" who "was incredibly rude to my mother when she visited town last year," we'd be no more surprised. The only reason we might think there was something amiss is that snipes and putdowns like that aren't suitable for birthday parties. Before this moment, Julie hadn't mentioned her mother at all.
Such a lapse wouldn't matter in isolation, but here it's the rule and not the exception. True Blue's women are so indistinct that they're barely character sketches, never mind characters. We learn only late in the play that some of the women never liked Linda's dead husband much, and this tidbit — along with a couple of vague, offhand references to his dirty mouth and wandering eyes — constitutes all we ever learn about that doomed union. Interesting? Barely. A solid foundation for serious drama? Not at all.
I can't say for certain, but I believe True Blue's problems have to do with O'Neill-Butler's inability to see her drama clearly before putting pen to paper, and I think this fuzziness insinuated itself into her script, as well the performances of the director and actresses who might have given it life. Radosh, Turnbull, and Gardner are all artists whose work can range from passable to brilliant, and the same goes for True Blue's other two actresses, Jacqueline Laggy and Pamela Roza. I've never seen any of them engage in such sloppy, broad characterizations as these — they're so adrift that their personalities seem to overlap. Throughout True Blue's seemingly endless two acts, they delivered their lines carefully, in the same exploratory manner you sometimes see at play readings. They didn't seem to be acting so much as searching for something in the script into which they might sink their teeth; trying and failing to find it in True Blue's haze and mawkishness. It didn't look like much fun, and I hope they find some consolation in the knowledge that this audience member felt much the same way.