There are roughly three distinct plots that make up James Christy's new play, Never Tell. It starts out in straightforward fashion, with Manny (Jason Schuchman), a microserf pounding away on his laptop, announcing that he has just created a technological innovation that will make him the next Bill Gates. It is a computer-empowering idea that will let the machine actually intuit its owner's emotions and feelings. Manny is clearly sitting on a major success, but one braces as he shares the news with a lazy co-worker named Hoover (Mark Setlock). Clearly, some major betrayal will provide the fundamental conflict that's in store for Manny. But instead, Never Tell, as guided by director Drew DeCorleto at the Michael Weller Theater, heads off in a very different direction. Manny alludes to a breakup he had with his girlfriend Liz almost a decade ago, a relationship shattered by a supposedly devastating revelation from her. The audience must then wait for further answers, as well as for any more substantial scenes featuring Manny.
Pinballing among his quintet of main characters, who are all equally flawed and, sadly, vaguely defined, Christy begins to let Hoover guide the action. We see him encounter Anne (Teresa L. Goding) at a party, and we wonder in what direction this new pair might advance the story. Instead of advancing it, though, Never Tell makes concentric circles out of its plot. Anne, it turns out, is married, to Will (Matthew Wilkas), an artist and gallery owner. The play spends a lot of the first act dwelling on an extremely controversial work of video art depicting a brutal act of statutory rape.
So which is Christy's A-plot: Manny's creation or Will's work of "art"? Neither, it turns out. Anne and Will introduce Hoover to Anne's friend Liz (Eva Kaminsky). She, of course, is Manny's former flame, who is currently Will's lover (unbeknownst to Anne), and the deceptive Hoover insinuates himself with her to become her new roommate. What a tangled web, indeed.
Yet the play also falls short of its potential. Ostensibly, Never Tell is all about secrets: how one can build a lifetime upon them, and the damage they can both create and prevent. Each of the play's main characters at one point addresses the audience and confesses a secret from his or her adolescence, some of which are more life-altering than others. But what is missing is any real payoff from these secrets. Christy spends so much time intertwining his characters that he forgets that their subplots also need to intersect at some point, and as a result, his theatrical geometry comes off as hubris.
Yes, Liz and Will's affair—ultimately lacking in chemistry and motivation—will come to light, somehow. Yes, Hoover's manipulations will come to light, somehow. And yes, it turns out there is more confusion and disappointment in store for Manny, somehow. But when each of these big moments occurs, they feel so preordained, they're anticlimactic: the actual how no longer matters.
Both Goding and Kaminsky do what they can to bring their characters to life, but intentionally or not, Never Tell has a misogynistic quality and treats each of its two female leads as nothing more than a betrayed woman and a fool. It's the trio of leading male actors, all of whom have commanding presences and are vividly directed by DeCorleto, who provide the production with its pulse. Wilkas, in particular, is a fascinating example of male volatility, a kind of Stanley Kowalski for the digital age. Will wants what he wants, and does not notice when he has crossed the line.
I wish Never Tell featured more of Schuchman's Manny, a character who has the most emotional notes to hit but too little dramatic space in which to hit them. Had Christy structured the play differently, with Manny as more of a mainstay throughout, he would have been a more compelling figure. Still, Schuchman does great work and is certainly one to watch.
I would also keep an eye on Setlock, who plays the slyest of the five main characters. He is able to suggest so much at once that however Hoover comes out in the end—as the smartest, kindest, most foolish, or most evil character in the play—all possibilities are justified.
So what kind of character does Hoover turn out to be? I'll never tell.