Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

William Cunningham's Poison of Choice premieres at Salem State University

Margaret Sweeney and Stephen Zubricki IV in Poison of Choice. Ben Rose photography

Margaret Sweeney and Stephen Zubricki IV in Poison of Choice. Ben Rose photography

Sometimes you have all the ingredients, but the blend just isn’t right. Too much of this, too little of that.

With playwright William Cunningham’s “Poison of Choice,” premiering now through Dec. 9 at the Sophia Gordon Center at Salem State University, the elements are all there. A clever concept—the bold blend of graphic novel techniques, with long-despised vices. An inspired cast, fully versed in the playwright’s ideas, and thoroughly rehearsed in his techniques. A throw-back set, diving deep into Fritz Lang–style noir expressionism.

But often the mix was inexact. A few overly chatty scenes spoiled the pace, with too much of the narrative got spent filling in the backstories, instead of developing scenes and characters. The ideas and concept were fine; the execution in the script failed to deliver them.

Stephen Zubricki IV stars as Allan Lubeck, graphic novelist and journalist who gets caught in between multiple histories—real and fictional. But “Poison of Choice” demands a cast of equals, and Schanaya Barrows (Haley), Seth Olsen (Peter Larkin), Sam Nudler (Eli), Ilisa Flum (Kathryn Kingsbury), Margaret Sweeney (Zoe Kingsbury) and Grace Graham (Lauren Kingsbury) all grab the spotlight at some point. Asher Greenwood Harris haunts the stage as a graphic novel character/alter ego come to life, Caleb Lange.

The true characters are the vices (no virtues here) portrayed by the actors themselves. The plot almost encompasses a medieval allegory: gluttony, pride, greed, lust, envy and anger all inhabit the stage at some point. 

Cunningham constructs it cogently in graphic novel tropes. Like the frames of a quasi–comic book narrative, the characters constantly finish each other’s sentences—often intermingling words to complete an anecdote, or to show their inherent complicity. There is no division between the characters’ inner psychology and their outward actions—a trait embodied by Harris, who stalks the proceedings in his dual guise, first as character from a novel and also character on the stage, injecting ideas that spring from the character’s subconscious.

The pace has some serious shortcomings. The tale ends up being a whodunit, which is only understood after all the backstory gets told. This requires two lengthy scenes—the first in act one, when the Kingsbury family hires Lubeck to whitewash its various sins in the media; the second in act two, when the repercussions of Lubeck’s new edition of his graphic novel get examined. The movement, and the characters, get stuck in these talky scenes, and the forward progress of the action and the development grinds to a halt.

Characters need more chance to grow. Zoe hardly seems like a convincing drug addict—far too cogent. Haley hardly seems like a serial adulterer. Some of the assumptions in “Poison of Choice”—drugs are bad, preachers are frauds, cops can be corrupt, stepmothers are evil—have the shallowness of cardboard cut-outs.

There is brilliant potential in this concept however. The notion of what’s real, and what’s imaginary, being on an equal footing in characters’ minds has compelling dramatic strength. Cunningham’s dialogue resonates at every turn. 

The single set (Topher Morris) was particularly promising. Although it worked less well as the interior of the Kingsbury home, the unsymmetrical, opaque skyscrapers set a mood that was both old-timey and believable. The visible world succinctly mirrored the interior world. 

Cunningham directed, and as usual the SSU actors were well rehearsed. The blocking worked in most scenes—there was a lot of standing and talking, and subtle movements helped the onstage energy. A climactic confrontation scene will probably work better after some repetitions. 

The world premiere of William Cunningham’s “Poison of Choice” runs through Dec. 9 at the Sophia Gordon Center on the Salem State University campus. For tickets and information visit www.salemstatetickets.com or call 978-542-6365.

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