Shannon Burkett and Charles Socarides
in Letters to the End of the World
(© Matthew Murphy)
Shannon Burkett and Charles Socarides
in Letters to the End of the World
(© Matthew Murphy)
Near the beginning of playwright-director Anton Dudley's irritating new play Letters to the End of the World, now at Theatre Row's Studio Theatre, pampered New Yorker Todd (Charles Socarides) sits himself down on a large and glossy map of Africa. Ostensibly, he's squatting because he's enamored of the entire continent and particularly drawn to strife-ridden Zambia. Moreover, the deeply shallow Todd feels an overwhelming need to connect with the cradle of humanity. "I'm trying to broaden myself," Todd says.

But while Letters, which is set in 1998, is the rare new play dealing with the AIDS crisis, ultimately, AIDS-riddled Africa serves as nothing more than an opportunity for Todd -- who eventually does a trek to Zambia -- to mature sufficiently so he can commit to boyfriend Bryan (Peter O'Connor), whom he's left behind for several months.

Todd's quest begins with his reading a series of Vogue articles on Zambia by a journalist named Agnatha (Shannon Burkett). He's so taken with her prose that he begins corresponding with her in the belief that she's living the humanitarian life he would like to live. What he only finds out when he finally gets up the gumption to join Agnatha is that she has her hands full coping with the children in the village where's she's based herself, alongside warm-hearted helper Emmanuel (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) and icy children's-center organizer Mrs. Mwando (Francesca Choy-Kee.)

But if Agnatha and Todd -- who are less ugly Americans than self-absorbed Americans -- run into trouble with Emmanuel and Mrs. Mwando, Dudley doesn't. It's their bordering-on-love friendship under distressing circumstances that lends this play whatever substance it has. Had Dudley concentrated on them and discarded Todd and Agnatha altogether, perhaps he'd have achieved something along the more cogent lines of Lynn Nottage's Ruined.

He didn't, however, and even compounds the effrontery by inserting a handful of scenes in which left-behind Bryan continues seeing Champagne-swilling Tess (Burkett again), an alcoholic mess with whom he'd cheated earlier and incurred Todd's hissy wrath. Making matters worse in a plot where just about every dire turn of events is signaled well in advance, Dudley introduces a jaw-dropping coincidence that won't be revealed here.

As Todd, Socarides seems as wafer-thin intellectually as the character he plays. To be fair, however, how weighty can he emerge spouting lines like this at the top of the second act when Todd is writing home to Bryan about Africa: "It's weird here." Choy-Kee and Henderson as the play's most dignified figures emerge with dignity intact, while Burkett is just all right in both roles and O'Connor does confused lover okay.