How is it that a play can seem derivative, even if it was written prior to the sources it seems to be ripping off? That's the paradox that bedevils Touch, currently on view in the Black Box Theatre at Fontbonne University as the latest entry to be staged under the Vanity Theatre banner. Act One seems to be influenced by David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Proof, while Act Two is styled in the edgier mode of Patrick Farber's Closer. Yet it appears that playwright Toni Press-Coffman wrote Touch in 1999, prior to the Broadway productions of either Proof or Closer. So why does her play seem so imitative? Perhaps because Touch lacks the originality and focus of the other two far superior scripts.
When Touch debuted off-Broadway three years ago, it sold itself as "the tale of a heartsick astronomer dealing with memories of his murdered wife." The Vanity Theatre press release also describes "a man in despair groping toward any connection that will rekindle joy." These are both accurate summations of Act Two. But what about Act One? What happens there? The answer, alas, is: precious little.
Although (like Proof and Closer) Touch is a four-character play, Act One is pretty much a one-man show that begins with the mother of all opening speeches. For more than 30 minutes the heartsick, despairing Kyle (Jason Cannon) chronicles his romance with the wondrous Zoe. He recalls their speedy college courtship, the blissful Manhattan honeymoon, the highs and lows of married life in Arizona. An impatient viewer might suggest that Kyle tells us more about the marriage than we really need to know, because Touch does not take hold until Zoe disappears from a local grocery store.
When that occurs, the plot moves on to scenes with characters who aren't there. The viewer is expected to envision lots of police brutality and insensitivity. Surely these sequences will be highly effective in the film version (if there ever is a film version), but this "lay-it-on-the-viewer's-imagination" approach to drama reveals Press-Coffman as yet another playwright who's already eagerly anticipating the problems of movie adaptation at the expense of her own milieu.
Late in Act One she does deliver one wonderfully theatrical scene. Learning that Zoe's corpse might be buried in the Arizona desert, Kyle and his best friend Bennie (Travis Estes) travel to a remote rock pile. As Kyle distractedly recites poetry by Keats, in the dim darkness Bennie extracts an item of clothing. The effect is both understated and electrifying. This is the sole moment when everything about the production text, performance, design, direction comes together to create compelling theater. But of course the playwright cannot leave well enough alone. As surely as the Earth revolves around the Sun, you know she's going to add a "surprise" with which to tag the act, in the same manner that Proof does. Only here the curtain-hanging twist is contrived.
Act Two takes the story in a sensual new direction. Kyle severs his link to Zoe's family, here personified by her sister Serena (Sarah Cannon). Instead he pays regular visits to a prostitute (Margeau Steinau). Perhaps we're supposed to be affected when Kyle refuses to allow her to undress him. But the theme that underlies Act Two the aforementioned "groping toward connection" was already old when David and Lisa was treading the same turf. Just because themes have been written about before doesn't mean a playwright shouldn't want to put a new spin on them, but what is the spin here? What does Kyle do or say to warrant our empathy?
Perhaps Touch would be more involving if it were staged in a mercilessly lean, scalpel-like manner that played against the excesses of the baleful tale being told. But as directed by (RFT theater critic) Deanna Jent, this production is as sentimental as one of those overwrought 1950s Douglas Sirk-directed movie melodramas with Rock Hudson.
On the other hand, the staging of this astronomer's lesson might have little to do with its subdued impact. It might be, as Shakespeare noted in Julius Caesar, that "the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves." Perhaps audiences are simply too inured to murder. In contrast to the daily fix of a pretty teen being abducted in Aruba or a newlywed vanishing from a cruise ship, Zoe is never more than a shadow, and the verbose Kyle comes off as self-indulgent. He talks and talks, but what he has to say does not sustain two and a half hours. If anything, the sheer narcissism of this wounded protagonist gives new meaning to the term "vanity theater."