In real life, a relationship requires two parties being connected to each other in order to work. Onstage, however, three parties must be in sync to portray a successful relationship – the two lovers as well as the audience. Edward and Allison, the two characters whose on-and-off romance provides the heart of Victor L. Cahn’s new play, Embraceable Me, may be able to get under each other’s skin, but they have a much more difficult time reeling the audience in. As envisioned by Cahn, Edward (Scott Barrow) and Allison (Keira Naughton) are really more like chess pieces than characters; the audience is familiar with their story and the moves these two will make. We first meet them at Edward’s New England country house. Several years after college graduation, both have made headway in their respective careers and have moved on with other love interests after an intense but abortive relationship that saw them progress from friends to significant others to exes.
However, a connection remains, even as Allison tells Edward that she has gotten engaged to a man she has known for mere months. It’s clear that Edward, while rarely the aggressor in his interactions, still carries a torch, and that Allison is testing to see if any interest remains. What follows then is a series of flashbacks to the belabored milestones of their relationship, partially reenacted by the two actors, partially dictated directly to the audience. Embraceable documents the stops and starts in their relationship as told in both flashback and narration.
But this whole journey is rather moot. It is a fait accompli that they believe they belong together and will ultimately end up with each other, so the play’s action feels both foreordained and inconsequential. A romantic dramedy such as Embraceable can still survive even if the plot provides short shrift. All that’s needed is convincing chemistry between the two leads.
Unfortunately, in this case, Edward and Allison feel mismatched, due in part to Cahn’s undernourished writing and also in part to the actors on board. Barrow does more heavy lifting. It is a mature performance. Edward is certainly a milquetoast, a vulnerable and passive intellectual, but his portrayer manages to make Edward’s frustration with his parents harrowing in addition to suggesting a normal male sexual appetite lurking beneath his docile exterior. We also get to watch him grow as his scenes continue. While he makes it clear that he would love to live with Allison, he also makes it clear that his life has taught him that he could live with or without her.
Naughton, who has proven her ability to command the stage in such previous shows as Hunting and Gathering and the Rivals, has a more difficult time shading in her character’s subtext here. In comparison to Edward, Allison has to drive the scenes. She asserts herself in scenes as the more driven of the two, but the performance feels too guarded. Several emotional scenes involving a medical scare for herself and the loss of a family member feel threadbare, lacking the digging required in order to portray attendant emotions like fear, weakness, or, most importantly, dependency. Meanwhile, Naughton should have let loose far more in a different flashback scene in which she humiliates Edward in front of his graduate school colleagues out of jealousy.
As a result, though the audience may be told repeatedly of it, they never actually feel a deep bond between Edward and Allison, let alone a love connection. Director Eric Parness seems to have been more engaged with the show’s technical elements, some of which impress more than others. Sarah B. Brown’s set uses the small space of the Kirk Theater effectively, providing several distinct spaces to represent various locations. Nick Moore’s sound design, on the other hand, calls too much attention to itself, distracting more than providing convincing ambient noise. And the transitions between the narration to the audience and the dialogue-driven scenes should be more seamless.
Barrow proves he is certainly a performer to watch, but Embraceable lacks both charm and conviction. I couldn’t help but wonder at show’s end if Edward and Allison stay together because they feel it is their characters’ destiny or simply because there was never anyone else around.