Brad Fraser's Love and Human Remains has found enthusiastic audiences since it premiered in Alberta, Canada, in 1989 under the title Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love. In its current production at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, however, what must have seemed an edgy, provocative play 20-odd years ago has been muted by time.
The play opens with roommates David and Candy (Zach McCoy and Kerri Lynn Miller), who were once lovers, but now emotionally distant David prefers anonymous homosexual trysts. He's in love with his friend Bernie (Nicholas Baroudi), who is trying to keep his own homosexual inclinations under wraps. Meanwhile, Candy can't decide whether she wants to be with bland bartender Robert (Dan Almekinder) or school teacher Jerri (Cassandra Paras). And 17-year-old Kane (Paul Castro Jr.) has started following David around like a puppy while unconvincingly denying he's looking for a bone. There's also enigmatic Benita (Frances Brennand Roper), a dominatrix and psychic who insinuates herself into everyone's lives. Now and then she tells the audience spooky urban legends about lovers who have been murdered. Amid all this sexual confusion and bloody storytelling, things take a strange turn when Bernie starts showing up with blood on his face and shirt. Is there some connection between him and reports of missing women around the city?
Randall Parsons' intimidating set design, with its raw, gritty, '80s East Village-like dilapidation and graffiti-marked doorways, places us in an unnamed city in the present day, creating a foundation for the play's somewhat experimental method. Fraser's quickly changing scenes (facilitated by Rome Brown's impressive lighting design), as well as comments interjected choruslike from peripheral actors, can be distracting (and confusing) when plowed through. Director Clyde Baldo tends to keep the action blazing along at too rapid a pace, allowing little time for the shifting scenes to sink in.
All of this places a heavy burden on the actors, only a few of whom seem to have settled into their characters. In the play's two main roles, McCoy and Miller unfortunately thrum their lines most of the time, while in two smaller roles, Paras and Castro have fleshed out two fully recognizable people. Baroudi does create a menacing creepiness onstage with his savagely aggressive and repressed Bernie, and Roper's black-clad dominatrix did manage to raise the hairs on the back of my neck with her chilling storytelling. Yet without compelling performances from all, a perplexing mist hangs over the stage.
Love and Human Remains tries to explore the inevitable alienation of rudderless people and the difficulty they have finding love in ever-shifting cultural and moral landscapes, but this production feels like it's just getting its bearings. The challenge facing any present-day director of this play is to make those themes resonate for a culture that has shifted tremendously from the culture it was written for. Today's audiences are less astonished to see same-sex couples embracing passionately, the stigma of coming out grows fainter as time goes on, and repressed homosexuality as a trigger for murderous impulses has become a cliché. Although this show taps into timeless themes of sexual confusion and impossible romantic relationships, as theater for a modern audience it lacks the shock value that the play must have once had.