Sometimes we just can't deliver on our promises. Conviction, currently playing at 59E59, looks like a compelling contemporary mystery wrapped around a fascinating true story from the era of the Spanish Inquisition. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of the actors and the creative team, this version of the story never takes off. The premise of Conviction certainly intrigues: after an Israeli scholar is caught trying to steal a confession extracted from a priest by the Inquisition, a Spanish official attempts to discern what was attractive about that particular file. Upon examining the documents, the two men uncover the ill-fated love story of a 15th century priest, Andrés González, and a Jewish woman, Isabel. Andrés' writings reveal his struggles as a convert to find a spiritual identity as he rediscovers his heritage. Meanwhile, the scholar, Professor Tal, seeks clues about his own roots.
Despite the interesting premise, there are basic dramaturgical problems which hobble Conviction. The greatest flaw is the diluted and ill-constructed adaptation by Mark J. Williams and Ami Dayan, who also stars as Professor Tal and the priest, Andrés. The play, which is based on a novel entitled Confession by Yonatan Ben Nachum, was originally performed as a one-man show. For this production Dayan and Williams have attempted to transform the play into a three-actor show. Their transformation, however, is incomplete.
In its current form, Conviction all too often betrays its origin as a monologue. Dayan as Andrés continually delivers long speeches about events from his past as he confesses his religious and sexual sins to his mentor, Juan de Salamanca. Much of the time, his words lack freshness, and come across as premeditated.
Meanwhile, his fellow actors rarely have much material with which to work. Kevin Hart in the dual roles of the Director of the National Archives and Juan has the unenviable job of questioning a totally unresponsive Tal on one hand, and acting as a sounding-board for Andrés' lengthy stories on the other. Catharine Pilafas is lovely as Isabel, but is also let down by the text, which fails to explore the psychology of her relationship with Andrés, reducing it to melodrama.
A few moments in Conviction prove that the story could have soared. In one beautiful tableau, as Andrés speaks of his and Isabel's growing intimacy, the two lovers begin to strip and bathe in the river in a poetic reverse-baptism. Later, Andrés affectingly describes the violent event in his childhood which made him realize that he had been born a Jew. Finally, in one superb but regrettably short scene, sparks fly between Andrés and Juan when the older man's own secret is almost revealed. By then, alas, it is too late to raise the stakes effectively for their characters.
Although director Jeremy Cole succeeds with these moments, he would have served the show better had he explored the tensions between the characters. Instead, most of the events in the play remain safely and resolutely in the past, resulting in a production which lacks immediacy.
Jeremy Cole's minimalistic set—a black-painted room which serves as a backdrop for some lovely projections—provides the bare minimum required for telling Conviction's story: a table with chairs, a pair of black prayer stools substituting for a confessional, and a candle-encrusted alter which doubles as a second level for the actors. Occasionally, when aided by Jacob M. Welch's lighting design, the space transforms, but most of the time it remains nothing more than a stage peppered with a smattering of props by Annette Westerby which belong neither to Franco's Spain nor the age of the Spanish Inquisition.
Kevin Brainerd's brown and blue costumes are attractive and serviceable. Although the sound design (uncredited) is clunky and distracting, the music by Jon Sousa and Yossi Green is truly lovely. Overall, Conviction is a visually and aurally appealing production.
It is just a shame that it does not live up to its promise.