Chaz Reuben, Madeleine James, and Joel Nagle
in Kernel of Sanity
(© Gerry Goodstein)
Chaz Reuben, Madeleine James, and Joel Nagle
in Kernel of Sanity
(© Gerry Goodstein)
References to works like Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, Amiri Baraka's Dutchman, and Richard Wright's Native Son foreshadow bloody violence that never arrives in Kermit Frazier's strained one-act drama Kernel of Sanity now playing at the Abrons Arts Center in a New Federal Theatre production.

The ingredients for fatal violence certainly seem to be in place. It's the late 1970s in a small, unnamed Midwestern town, where Frank (Joel Nagle), a semi-successful actor has retreated after burning out on the falsehoods of life -- and drugs -- in Los Angeles. While Frank -- who has received an "official" diagnosis of mental disability from the Social Security Administration -- still self-medicates in the familial home he's taken over (rendered with terrific specificity by scenic designer Pavlo Bosyy), life is turning around. He's found a girlfriend named Rita (Madeline James), a secretary who is also perceived as an oddity in the small town.

Then, Roger (Chaz Reuben), an actor from New York with whom Frank once appeared in a production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, pays a much-unexpected visit. Soon, Frank and Rita's already tumultuous relationship becomes fraught with even more tension as issues of race and their varying perceptions of events both present and past collide.

As Sanity evolves, it becomes clear that Frazier wants to extend beyond the theatrical by attempting to create a piece that echoes Thomas Pynchon's sometimes trippy and hallucinogenic prose. Unfortunately, both the script and Petronia Paley's prosaic direction never completely reach the heights of this novelist's work. As a result, the play's fantasy sequences -- such as one extremely intimate moment that Roger shares with Rita -- unfold awkwardly and confusingly. Similarly, an improvisation that Roger and Frank create, in which Roger expresses his rage about the marginalization that he's experienced both in his friendship with his colleague and as a black man in general, feels forced and disconnected rather than setting the stage for the play's explosive conclusion.

Reuben proves to be the most felicitous at navigating the twists and turns of the script. When Roger first appears, he seems like one of the most laid-back guys one might ever meet, but as the piece progresses, Reuben's portrayal grows in intensity. By the end of the play, his ability to summon the rage that Roger has carried for most of his life is searing. James' work is solid -- and a sequence in which she calls Frank out on his self-obsession is particularly satisfying.

Unfortunately, Nagle's portrayal of Frank, the linchpin of this piece, is almost too uniformly manic. It's difficult to understand how either Rita or Roger might be drawn to the man, let alone become borderline obsessed with him. Indeed, his lack of chemistry with his fellow actors only underscores the weaknesses of this potentially promising play.