Orange Flower Water: Nasty by Nature

New Century delivers a brutal stunner about infidelity.

Everything is always about us, or so we believe.Nearly a century ago, Freud posited that most people relate to the world primarily as it impacts them, and that's why Oprah, the playoffs, and the death of Michael Jackson can captivate an audience. What would I do if my spouse was secretly a plushie or furrie? How would I behave under pressure as an athlete with everything on the line? What if it were me who had more talent than any one person deserves and decided to remake myself into an anorexic space alien?On the other hand, that seemingly selfish trait of making it all about us is also an indispensable building block of compassion, because suddenly, we can relate. And it's that capacity for empathy that makes Craig Wright's Orange Flower Water a wrenching 70-minute immersion in infidelity. Watching couples systematically dismantle their love lives never makes for an evening of Hallmark greeting-card theater, but rarely do their betrayals and seismic realignments make your own gut churn with each new shock.New Century Theatre Company's second offering (last fall's highly successful production of The Adding Machine was their first) makes clear the breadth of the troupe's ambition. Adding Machine is a seldom-performed classic, Orange Flower Water is a contemporary piece first performed at the Jungle Theatre in Minneapolis in 2002.NCTC's first show was grand in every way, boasting showy performances, an operatic running time, dazzling tech work, and the biggest of Big Ideas. Orange Flower Water, by contrast, is as intimate as a nasty argument heard through a motel wall. This time, emotions rather than ideas provide the elephant in the room, creating that creeping truth no one wants to face. As for stagecraft, the set couldn't be more minimalist: Four chairs sit in four corners while a single bed looms in the middle of the room. The effect is stunning. All of a sudden you're ringside at a grudge match in which the losers forfeit marriage, home, children, and trust in that person they've been sleeping a pillow away from for more than a decade.As the play opens, Cathy Calhoun (Jennifer Lee Taylor) natters on about her chirpy little life of suburban bliss with three young kids and a forgetful husband, unaware that soon her spouse David (NCTC co-artistic director Hans Altwies) will be rummaging through the blouse of another woman and dreamily imagining what a child of theirs might look like. Before long, the secret is out: Beth Youngquist (Betsy Schwartz) gives into David's advances, and it doesn't take Beth's loutish husband Brad (Ray Gonzalez) too long to figure out that his wife is screwing the pharmacist he sees at their kids' soccer games. There are moments of comedy early on, but when Brad confronts Beth about her affair, Wright's text gets really real really quick. And with the audience seated closely enough to reach out and console one of them, Orange Flower Water comes rapidly to a boil.In the end, of course, there's nothing but sorrow, regret, and a determination to get it right the next time. But as theater, it's a ride you won't soon forget. Remember the Oscar-winning Ordinary People, the tragedy of a family unraveling because they couldn't cope with the aftermath of a boating accident? Craig Wright's text has no accidents of any kind. These are people all acting in self-interest: some to preserve the status quo, others to have exactly what they want precisely when they'd like it, regardless of who gets hurt.It's impossible to single out a particular cast member, because this ensemble is airtight. Gonzalez gets the lines with the biggest bite, but his roar is more wounded animal than lunkhead. Altwies, so convincing in the Rep's The Seafarer earlier this year, has turned in his Irish brogue for a rakish blue-collar charm. Taylor wraps her character in a mall mom's high dudgeon, and claims a bit of her husband's soul as a parting gift when she demands sex before dismissing him forever. Schwartz grows up in a hurry as Beth. She vacillates, weighs the merits of an extramarital affair, and has almost talked both of them out of taking that final leap before her hormones kick in.Director Allison Narver makes such astute casting choices that it seems she could have just handed out scripts and the show would have directed itself. But look closer and you can see her work. These characters stalk and retreat from each other in infinite combinations, and there's an ebb and flow that leads inexorably from the mundane mediocrity of normal life through the turbulence of the affair to what becomes the new "normal" for them. It's a bleary dawn of ex-wives and husbands, unsteady couplings, possibilities, and a gnawing uncertainty that any of it will

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