There is a certain point in the development of the male adolescent psyche when the notion of tyrannically conquering the world, or at least some favorable segment of it, seems just the ticket. In Dominic Orlando's new The Sense of What Should Be, produced by Workhaus Collective, teenaged Adam (Dylan Frederick) embarks on a course that leads to him turning into a costumed supervillain and to general mayhem—all in the service of impressing a girl.
Why else, really? This giddy, self-satirizing mix of comedy and pumped-up drama begins in a humble kitchen, where Reverend Stanley (John Middleton) grumpily assesses his coffee situation. Adam turns up at his door, and soon enough we learn that our small-town preacher has fallen into disfavor after leaving his wife for the 18-year-old Tessa (Christine Weber). Adam makes an offer: Spill to me the secrets you learned in two decades as a pastor, and we will wreak vengeance upon everyone.
Frederick is spot-on as a spindly high school geek with a comic-book fixation, though from the start he infuses his performance with streaks of arrogance, superiority, and crack timing in handling Orlando's one-liners. Middleton's pastor is disillusioned, and wide open to ideas of mucking things up for those who have abandoned him (while leaning into stretches of speechifying, as though not quite able to surrender the pulpit).
THE SENSE OF WHAT SHOULD BE
Workhaus Collective at the Playwrights' Center
through November 21
at the Guthrie Theater
through December 6
The object of Adam's desire is Marie (Joanna Harmon), the school beauty who heads up the swim team and dates quarterback Derek (Daniel Jimenez). Adam blackmails Marie into a very awkward date, during which he makes inroads toward charming her. We get the inkling here that Adam has a very complicated and very Machiavellian master plan.
Of course he does, and it involves sabotaging a hydroelectric dam, faking his own death, ruining nearly everything for nearly everyone, making off with a giant ransom, and getting Marie to swivel 180 degrees on the whole dork/jock dichotomy. (In a funny twist, Derek turns out to be a relatively harmless and entirely amiable doofus.)
The first half of the show is downright exhilarating, as full of ideas and distinctive performances as anything you'll see this year. It feels like a naughty brand of subversion, watching this small-scale knave scheme to explode his insecurities across his world. In the second act, when the plot is actually executed, matters lose a degree of focus, and the tone wavers unsteadily between madcap and something more penetrating.
With the final scene, things come around nicely, almost gently: What we've been watching is a distinctly loopy love story. There really shouldn't be any other kind.
AT ONE POINT during a monologue by Grace (Sally Wingert) in the Guthrie's Faith Healer, she exhaustedly looks at the audience, searching for words to describe her departed lover. They come relatively easily: He was a "twisted man."
This story of an Irish faith healer (with only intermittent success in making miracles) is told in two dialogues by Frank (Joe Dowling), bookending one apiece by Grace and former manager Teddy (Raye Birk, boozy, Cockney, selectively delusional). Brian Friel's script enables each performer to stretch out and unfurl a rush of storytelling prowess that circles around, then leads to, Frank's unsettling demise.
The atmosphere this trio evokes is a web of cruelty, deceit, and mangled memory, done with mastery and outsized confidence. If there's a criticism, it is that Friel's script is overly in love with its own voice, reiterating unnecessarily the notion that we all walk away with drastically different memories of events. The effect begins poignant and jarring, and ends with us wishing it would stop trying to draw so much attention to itself.
Still, by the time we get to Dowling's shattering final line, this show has amply earned the power it intends to deliver.
Faith, like chance, has a way of deserting us at the least opportune times.