Bucking convention is a lonely enterprise, especially when downtown theater, a sphere of creativity with a decidedly highbrow aesthetic, is concerned. The Advent of Darkness, a new play running at HERE Arts Center in SoHo, attempts to thumb it's nose at fashion by presenting a sci-fi action-thriller instead of more avant-garde fare, but unfortunately the piece proves to be short on drama, substance, and thrills, leaving the audience feeling abandoned.

There is nothing wrong with the concept of a popcorn play; in fact it can be a blessed relief from conceited one-person shows and dour massacres of classics. Theater doesn't always need to be medicine--it can be candy--and at it's best, The Advent of Darkness falls over itself to entertain. Popular genres have been the sole province of TV, film, and books for so long now that any stage production that references them seems special. The Advent of Darkness banks on that theory, serving up a stew of X-Files, Jackie Chan, and Twin Peaks.

The play starts with a bang somewhere in Southeast Asia, where a secret map with the power to unlock all manner of celestial mayhem is discovered by a very bad man (Daniel Winerman). In these opening moments, we are treated to a thrilling fight sequence--that is best described as kick-ass--between the bad man and the map's guardian (Evan Lai). This is followed by a sequence in which each character in the drama strikes a pose and is introduced, in a smart device and a sly piece of staging.

But then the piece falls to apart under the pressure of an uninspired and convoluted plot. The map is divided into five pieces and 20 years pass. We are introduced to kung-fu apprentices, underground graffiti artists, evil scientists, and a henchman who is a cross between The Terminator and Daddy Warbucks. Keeping an audience in the dark is a time-honored means of building and maintaining suspense, but keeping an audience confused about characters and plot points indicates a weak script. In an apparent effort to keep the play moving quickly, so many potential details are sacrificed along the way that the effort to maintain the neck-break pace is wasted.

Written by Celia Botet and J. Granwemeyer, and produced by Waverly Productions, The Advent of Darkness is also deceptive in it's marketing. For the record, only part one of the show was reviewed, as the play is presented in two episodes, running weeks apart (part one plays for three consecutive Friday nights, followed by three Fridays of part two). Each episode runs about an hour, and it's a curiosity as to why the producers wouldn't have made The Advent of Darkness a single evenings-worth of entertainment. Paying the $12 ticket price twice is a steep cost to theatergoers looking to clean their artistic palettes.