Dead Zone

Don't let the title fool you; Welcome Home Steve isn't about Steve at all. Craig McNulty's play is about Steve's friends, a motley group with not much in common. Having met in writing school, they've managed to keep in touch for a number of years after graduation, despite the dramatically different lives each has chosen. The play begins with the friends gathering in Sheila's apartment to welcome Steve back from an extended jaunt in Turkey. But when they go to rouse him from his sleep, they find him cold. Steve has overdosed on a tiny portion of the heroin from a six-figure drug deal he was putting together.

While such a premise brims with dramatic promise, McNulty uses his characters as mouthpieces for weak arguments about responsibility and ethics instead of letting the conflicts inherent in his material run a natural course. As a result, his characters seem one-dimensional, which detracts from the script's finer-crafted moments.

Sheila is an ultra-spiritual hippie type; she was also Steve's girlfriend when he was not globetrotting on his various misadventures. Peter is a stoner, not quite busy laboring on his stoner masterpiece while paying the bills working behind the register at a taco shop. Billy is a horror writer living hand-to-mouth, in stark contrast to his Wall Street girlfriend, Holly. John has given up his writing aspirations for an unfulfilling life as a grade-school teacher.

Like filmmaker Kevin Smith, McNulty builds much of his dialogue from arguments over geek-culture standards; the play opens on Peter trying (and failing) to convince Billy of the artistic merit of graphic novels. Instead of eliciting the kind of understated performances Smith gets from his actors in films like Clerks, director Guilherme "Guil" Parreiras gives his actors free rein with the script, resulting in quite a bit of overacting, particularly by Joseph Amato, who plays Peter. While Amato eventually does get some laughs, his wild gesticulations and inconsistent mock-ghetto accents betray an insecurity with the material.

Once Steve is found dead, the play shifts to a more serious tone, and the play begins to lose its credibility. For some reason, nobody even thinks about or discusses calling the police when his body is found. Rather, all the characters agree to let Sheila perform vague and repetitive spiritual rites over the body, which conveniently allows for different characters to be left alone with each other, creating contrived conflicts.

When Peter and Billy decide to sell the heroin, John tries to talk them out of it. But the trio seems to be more concerned with debating the questionable morality of providing drugs to junkies than the legal ramifications of such actions. This, too, feels more contrived than natural, especially because the play never addresses what actually happens to the drugs.

A big twist comes at the end when one character confesses to administering the deadly dose to Steve. This prompts John, who hears the confession, to (finally) call the police, admitting that he was the one who unwittingly killed his friend. It would be a nice twist, except it leaves one wondering: if the evidence of the crime could be so easily faked/destroyed, why not let the blame for Steve's death fall on Steve?

Ken Larson's scenic design stands out, lending the play some much-needed believability. The setting is the living room/kitchen of a Brooklyn apartment, and the stage looks every bit the part. From a toy basketball hoop on the wall to the lived-on couch, the set's distinctive touches give the actors a comfortable world to work in.

But while the production values are very good and the acting is professional, the script still needs work. Should McNulty find a way to color in his sketched characters and craft a more believable story arc, a subsequent rewrite might produce a fine play. As it is, though, Welcome Home Steve seems like a workshop production.

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