EARLY ON IN NORTH STREET, the new play by Aaron Thomas, I detected a strange noise under the sound of accompanist Chris Martin's growling electric guitar. A deeper, more primal dissonance seemed to fill my head. Was it the gritty scenario that Thomas had set out for us, of separate and disassociated lives trying to connect in a depressed town in Vermont? Or Jeffrey Cook's evocative set, in which walls of cracked fiberboard suggest the breaking ice that each of the characters hope will follow this long dead winter of hopelessness?
No. It was my teeth grinding.
Printer's Devil Theater, ends March 13
The play chronicles a couple of weeks in the lives of a loose-knit community of young people surviving a bleak November in Vermont. Randy (Deron Bos) does occasional work on the ski slopes when there's snow, and in the meantime noodles with his guitar and drinks beer with his buddy Jerry (Matt Ford). Occasionally he tries to patch things up with his former girlfriend Fern (Mara Hesed), who is thinking about moving out of her apartment, a decision encouraged by her friend Linda (Tina Kunz). Then there's Cassidy, a 49-year-old graying rebel who never appears on stage, but whose alienated daughter (Sarah Gunnell) and teenage ex-girlfriend (Peggy Gannon) drop by.
As these are lives dominated by stasis and entropy, little happens, and those events that do occur (a suicide, a beating, an aborted road trip) occur offstage, with little clear effect on the lives before us. Instead, we get a lot of talk, often in the form of poetic odes. We get several odes to the river, some odes to the snow, and a couple of odes to a glittering series of convenience stores that Randy hopes to knock over. Thomas' aim is high, but it comes across as an unholy combination of the worst excesses of Sam Shepard and David Mamet, self-conscious imagery and vaguely malaprop clich鳠that are all too anxious to call attention to themselves.
The most damaging thing about this script is how it encourages the actors and director Kip Fagan toward the sort of overblown emotion that typifies Printer's Devil at its worst. As in Spinal Tap, the answer to how to make a scene work seems to be to "turn it up to 11," leading to some egregious overacting. Bos is especially guilty of a wild-eyed strutting and shouting that telegraphs his every intent from miles away. Of the cast, only Kunz is able to provide us with something resembling a human being in her feisty but conflicted striving for recognition from the people around her. But it's a small salvation in a long evening of glaring pretension.