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Hunter Foster delivers a powerful and unexpected performance in Billy Goda's otherwise forgettable and ultimately ludicrous thriller.

Richard Masur and Hunter Foster in Dust
(© Carol Rosegg)
If Billy Goda's thriller Dust, now settled at the Westside Theatre, is remembered for anything -- a questionable proposition -- it will be as the play in which Hunter Foster changed his image from cute-sexy musical-comedy leading man with a touch of the goofball about him to an actor with unexpected emotional depth and prowess.

Here, Foster plays Zeke Catchman, an ex-con on a self-destructive rampage, with such gritty finesse that he'll never have to worry about being typecast again. Catchman has been humiliated at his hotel service job by rich and powerful Martin Stone (the always reliable Richard Masur) after refusing to wipe the dust from a vent cover in the hotel gym.

Determined to make Stone regret his overbearing behavior, Catchman ingratiates himself with the mogul's dad-hating daughter Jenny (Laura E. Campbell) without realizing that when she falls for him, he might return the romantic compliment. But sending a threat to Stone through his daughter provokes Dad to rehire a former bodyguard Ralph (John Schiappa). Further, Catchman's precarious tactics also worry both his probation officer Bobby Lawton and drug-dealer buddy Digs (Curtis McClarin, doubling in the roles).

The play's volatile opening makes Dust seem like Goda is hatching a Sleuth/Deathtrap-like romp about an older and a younger man playing high-stakes king-of-the-hill. And indeed, the question of who's got the upper-hand holds interest for a while. It's particularly commanding when whoever has the upper hand is wielding a pistol of one caliber or another as the men invade each other's residences (a plot device which does put a strain on Caleb Wertenbaker to provide a single three-part set that can serve as multiple locales).

As it happens, though, Goda has something more serious that he wants to grapple with; he's really after the drama of two men trying to alter their ways and even their deep-seated personalities and who have unfortunately gotten themselves into an accelerating conflict neither of them appears able to control. As Goda switches gears, he does insert a few compelling segments -- one of them a love scene between the actually sensitive Zeke and the rather wise Jenny.

But these moments are outnumbered by the accumulation of credulity-testing events -- not to mention that Goda never explains what brought the underwritten Zeke, a reasonably intelligent fellow, to probation and the menial hotel position, anyway. By the time that Goda reaches his denouement, which is both predictable and ludicrous, he's merely contriving to make his moralistic point about the inevitability of mindless power games leading nowhere good.

Still, Foster and Masur aren't the only cast members doing yeoman work. Under Scott Zigler's taut direction (with the occasional assist from ubiquitous fight director Rick Sordelet), there are sturdy performances from Campbell, McClarin and Schiappa, all of whom are up to and beyond what's demanded of them.

Waxing poetic towards the play's conclusion, Zeke wishes Jenny and he "were just two people stumbling across each other in this crowded and lonely city." Sadly, cities can feel even lonelier when crowded by miss-the-mark plays like Dust.


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