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Anton Dudley's new play has effective moments, but its banal observations on mourning drag it down.

Jan Maxwell and Kieran Campion
in Substitution
(© T Charles Erickson)
A freak boating accident kills a class of high school students, and those left behind have to come to terms with their grief in Anton Dudley's new play, Substitution, now at Soho Playhouse. While the 85-minute show contains a few effective moments, its banal observations on mourning drag the play down.

Calvin's Mom (Jan Maxwell) feels a rage that continually threatens to bubble to the surface. She isn't sure how to deal with the loss of her son, but is wary of the sentiments expressed by Paul (Kieran Campion), a substitute teacher who seems to know a lot more about her boy than he should. While she initially suspects Paul of impropriety, the truth turns out to be more complicated -- although equally troublesome.

Dudley's script alternates between the tale of these two adults following the tragedy, and scenes between teenagers Jule (Shana Dowdeswell) and Dax (Brandon Espinoza), set immediately prior to it. The two stories are meant to explore love, chance, and the need to make a human connection. But both come to conclusions that feel overly forced -- particularly the resolution between Calvin's Mom and Paul.

Director Katherine Kovner manages to keep the tone of the piece lightly humorous while never forgetting the weight of the subject matter. She's aided by scenic designer Tom Gleason, who has provided walls made out of some kind of blue glass or plastic substance, with patterned ripples to give the illusion of water. It's a continual reminder of the boating accident that's subtle enough to be effective.

Maxwell nicely captures her character's conflicted emotions, and the audience can almost physically feel the anger as it wells up inside of her and finds expression in deceptively quiet pronouncements or physical actions that you know she'll come to regret. Campion tries too hard to convey Paul's nervous mannerisms, and never finds the emotional depths that would make his speeches about Calvin believable. Dowdeswell doesn't have much to work with, as Jule seems more like a mouthpiece for the playwright's thoughts about the fragility of history than a fully rounded character. Espinoza projects a sweet-natured likability that makes him endearing; he also manages to pull off a rather sappy final speech while dressed as a "merboy."

Ultimately, Dudley has nothing new to tell us about grief, love, or acceptance, and what he does share seems overly trite.


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