Devil of Choice, Maggie Diaz Bofill’s new play presented by the LAByrinth Theater Company, begins with a violinist silhouetted amidst a scorching red light. A long, wailing note that is both sinister and filled with longing pierces the silence, and the audience is momentarily cast into the fiery pit of hell. Fittingly, as one of the characters makes clear later, the violin is the favorite musical instrument of the devil. This striking image sets the scene, however, for the disappointing drama that follows, a Faustian riff on an all-too familiar love triangle.
The play takes place on and around a college campus, where visiting professor Sal (David Zayas) has earned a stellar reputation among his students. As an instructor, he retells with hip, colloquial language the plot of Goethe’s Faust (even though the students had been assigned to read the play and should already know the blow-by-blow minutiae Sal offers), and he brings out the best in his young charges, presumably with the simple exhortation, “Be excellent!”
He apparently has a similar effect on women since he is the devil of choice for both his wife, Pepper (Elizabeth Canavan), and his departmental supervisor, Delia (Florencia Lozano). Pepper, a former first-chair violinist, masochistically endures Sal’s mercurial personality. At times he verbally abuses her in public, while at others he makes tender love to her in private. Contrasted with Pepper’s emotionally chaotic personality, Delia is a thoroughly professional woman. She lives an orderly, uncluttered life, but she is also unable to resist Sal’s magnetic and toxic charms. As his mistress, Delia is perfectly willing to play second fiddle to Pepper.
The play consists of a series of short scenes, which show the characters alternating among customary and obligatory moments of manipulation, betrayal, and simmering passions. The violinist (Melisa McGregor, a marvelous musician and composer) remains on stage throughout and provides transitional mood music.
Unfortunately, for all the talk of devils and hell there is surprisingly little heat generated by the play. A large part of the problem lies in the thinly drawn characters, who have little room to develop beyond banal niceties. Pepper has a childlike quality, and even when she confronts her rival lover, she is nonthreatening. Delia is business like and cool, but she is supportive and gentle with Pepper. Even Sal, for all his bluster and devil-may-care sexual attitude, is at heart a big softy.
Under Shira-Lee Shalit’s direction there are also many tonal missteps. For instance, in one scene Pepper recounts in a phone conversation with Delia a night of lovemaking and passion with Sal. Pepper’s description is detailed and graphic (and frankly, rather off-putting), and Delia seethes with anger and jealousy since Sal had cast her aside earlier to be with his wife. The exchange as presented here, though, goes for the laughs. Delia shovels handfuls of potato chips and hummus into her mouth with each new sexual revelation. Indeed, throughout the 90-minute play, erotic tension and sensual desires are often undercut by broad humor and coarseness. The final result is more like an extended episode of Three’s Company than a sultry stage manifestation of Fifty Shades of Grey.
The three actors, who are all members of the estimable LAByrinth company, do fine work with the limited material. Zayas is charm personified, and if he is somewhat unconvincing in the guise of a hotshot university professor, he exudes carnal brutishness that makes him compelling to watch. (Picture, for instance, Stanley Kowalski as a college instructor.) Canavan taps into the daffiness of the character, and this is epitomized as she joyously tries on a pair of roller skates sending her back to girlhood reveries. Lozano provides the emotional weight to the play, and she allows a fair amount of vulnerability to break through the steeliness.
The bare-bones production design (by Raul Abrego) has the benefit of highlighting the actors’ contributions. Regrettably, it also exposes the flimsiness of the play’s structure and makes one wish there were more devil in these details.
The LAByrinth Theater Company production of Devil of Choice by Maggie Diaz Bofill runs through June 9 at the Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce St.). For tickets and performance schedule, visit labtheater.org.