After you've seen a few of them, most New York-centric plays begin to seem slightly familiar. They all involve couples, usually financially well-off ones. Their members intermingle in various combinations to talk about their lives, only to break off in different combinations to discuss how the side of their lives the audience has seen is a front for something less satisfied. Nancy Manocherian, the author of Guilty, the current Cell Theater Company production now playing at the Acorn Theater, is—you guessed it—responsible for creating yet another one of those cookie-cutter Manhattanite works. Though it's staged handsomely by talented set designer Tim McMath, one should not judge Guilty solely on its looks. The play that begins once the curtain rises is based on plenty of sex, lies, and photographs, and by the zig-zaggy production's overdue end, the only lingering question is "Why are all of these people friends?"
Manocherian introduces all of her characters at once, at the funeral of the dog belonging to privileged teenager Lindsey (Tracee Chimo). She is the daughter of Marcie (Mary Ann Cook, in too slight a role for her obvious skills as both a comedian and dramatic actress) and Rich, who has just been caught committing some unspecified white-collar crime.
The couple is acquainted with Adam (two-time Emmy-winner Darnell Williams), an attorney, and Jake (Ned Massey), an erstwhile musician who enjoyed some success as a solo act and is trying to make his money last as long as he can. Jake resents Adam's wife Dori (Glory Gallo), a trust fund baby who happens to be close with his wife, Laura (Heather Kenzie), a former groupie with secrets of her own.
Jake also nurses an unhealthy relationship with the bipolar Lindsey. Dori, meanwhile, seeks to reignite a missing spark in her life, not with Adam but by reviving her photography career with her first love, an old college boyfriend with a trendy art gallery.
Manocherian weaves a tangled web, but ultimately to little avail. Guilty never really builds to a climax, or even to any stunning confrontations. And with the major plot points pivoting on her female characters, she gives Massey and Williams very skeletal characters to work with. Both actors are charismatic, but Adam is a character without edge. Meanwhile, Jake should have been a point of entry for a lot of dramatic development. He's a former artist trying to shun all adult responsibilities that have come his way, including fatherhood and fidelity. (Massey also writes and performs Jake's big song.)
Manocherian raises more questions about Jake's past than are answered, yet her interest in the character's predicament seems to wane as she moves on to new territory and choppy subplots. In fact, the most interesting male character is Marcie's larcenous husband Rich, whom the audience never even sees. And throwaway references to him are confusing—is he on trial, in rehab, or in prison? Also, the fact that Adam and Dori's three children are never seen and rarely mentioned undermines the history of their life together.
It is hard to tell if director Kira Simring is in love with Manocherian's plot or at a loss in terms of guiding the work into something more involving. In any case, the result feels stale. It is nearly impossible to understand what motivates any of the characters to do the things they do, which means when the audience does hear about those things after the fact (the play is more talk than action), it is very difficult to care. And to perform the piece in an uninterrupted hour and 50 minutes is a mistake as well.
As Lindsey and Laura, Chimo and Kenzie do nice, nimble work, justifying their characters' choices from scene to scene. But because these ladies are in a different state of mind every time we see them, a real person never emerges. Ultimately, it is Dori who emerges as the play's core character, and Gallo is remarkable—earthy, sultry, paranoid, nosy—a truly flawed, scared woman. She carries the show, only to have the play force her to deliver an extended monologue near the prolonged end, in which Dori laments her body's betrayal of her in middle age. This type of scene could be lifted right out of the rest of the play; it is stylistically inconsistent, comes too late, and mars a performance that up to then had been perfectly expressive about Dori's worries over aging and her fraying marriage.
All six characters in Guilty make bad choices, some of which are worse than others. Sometimes they hurt each other; almost always they do some damage to themselves. And yet, after all the suffering is said and done, no one really learns anything, the audience included.