Writing a good play is hard work. It takes not only an ear for dialogue and an eye for fresh characters but fingers that can type and retype, revise and revise some more. Seeking Asylum, a world premiere by Ragged Blade Productions, needs much in the way of revision. There's a good ten-minute play in here somewhere; unfortunately, right now it lasts 90 minutes. The premise -- an insane asylum where a fraudulent doctor experiments with new drugs that produce unexpected side effects, could be humorous -- but here it's not. The doctor is neither believable enough nor farcical enough for humor. And the side effects -- imaginary friends -- are another great idea, but the humor fades after their first few minutes onstage. Why? Because none of the eleven characters in this play changes -- they begin as stereotypes and speak as stereotypes and end the same as they began. There are some funny one-liners, but that doesn't make a play. Characters interacting, not delivering punchlines, is what sets theater apart from stand-up comedy.
And the jokes that are funny (the first time) are repeated so often that they become tedious. The first joke about voting Democratic in Texas got a smile. The first time someone said that Grandma looked like LL Cool J, it was amusing. But nothing builds on these jokes -- not character or plot, and so they stand like separate pieces of a puzzle that never comes together. In another overused refrain, playwright Jerry Rabushka has the main female character, Renee, complain about the "male-o-centric" script. Her point is valid. In spite of Renee's efforts to change it, the script remains focused on three men: the doctor and two of his patients -- Thor and Mark. The female characters are the bitchy wife, two mythic "imaginary friends" reminiscent of the Furies, the bad Mother and the Brooklyn cousin with big hair. It's hard to fault the actresses in these thankless roles -- they play the stereotypes as written. As Mark, Gary Sohn needs to work on articulation; as Thor, Jeff Schoenfeld garners some laughs, but his character plays the same crisis the whole play (he wants his imaginary friend back), which gets old long before intermission.
The set features attractively colorful backdrops and six stools, scattered around the stage, that are not used effectively by director Robert Beck. The depth of the stage is rarely used, and the stools are most often lined up, leaving the actors either standing or sitting in straight lines. Even the tried-and-true humor of a conga line of actors crossing the stage is deflated when they accidentally run into the decorative potted tree at the side of the stage (as a planned moment, it could have been funny). It's also possible that some of the dialogue between characters would have been more humorous if Beck had ever gotten them to really talk to each other instead of sounding like actors speaking random lines in a play.
Strangely, the many transitions between scenes were the most engaging part of the evening. Playwright Rabushka played bongos and maracas with energy and a jazzy beat, making us sorry when the lights came up and characters started talking again. The funniest moment of the production happened about five minutes before the show actually started: a stagehand walked onstage and stole a bottle of pills from the well-stocked onstage drug shelf. The audience chuckled as he walked off, one man saying, "He must be having a hard night." Unfortunately, it was the play that needed a prescription. Rabushka's plays are published by a company that specializes in high-school scripts (which may explain the repeated references to rap singers), and this one embodied all that we dread in bad high-school productions: predictable characters, repetitive plot elements and disconnected language and style.
If Ragged Blade had done a staged reading of Seeking Asylum so Rabushka could get some honest feedback, it would have made sense -- but to mount a fully staged production was a waste of time for the actors, director and, perhaps most important, the audience.