The graphically detailed horrors of our 21st century world – the terrible burning of Deerfield Beach teen Michael Brewer, photos of American soldiers posing with enemy corpses, accounts of bullied kids choosing death over torment – leave most sane and sickened 24/7 news consumers wondering one thing: Why?
Why do supposedly civilized human beings behave this way? Why the cruelty? Why the violence?
Plantation’s Mosaic Theatre aims to explore the disturbing roots of such shocking incidents in Joe Calarco’s A Measure of Cruelty, a world premiere play commissioned by the company.
Ripped-from-the-headlines drama has an undeniable, of-the-moment power. Lee Blessing’s Patient A, a 1993 play about the AIDS death of University of Florida student Kimberly Bergalis, was a shocking and moving piece of theater almost 20 years ago. But it hasn’t stood the test of time nearly as well as, say, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart or Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.
As vital as the issues depicted in A Measure of Cruelty are, Calarco’s script isn’t likely to have a long life beyond its Mosaic premiere without some clarifying, significant rewrites.
Though it certainly isn’t a docudrama about the horrific 2009 attack on the 15-year-old Brewer, who was doused with rubbing alcohol and set on fire after a dispute stemming from a $40 video game debt, the then-fresh case is a vital element of the script.
One character, Derek (Andrew Wind), is a jittery composite, a fictional version of the teens accused of attacking Brewer. A Deerfield Beach bar owner and ex-soldier named Buddy (Todd Allen Durkin) is setting up for a fund-raiser to help pay Brewer’s medical bills, while his unseen nurse girlfriend Linda has fled back to Ohio, traumatized by the teen burn victim’s agony and by Buddy’s ongoing battle with post-traumatic stress disorder. Buddy’s tough-guy dad Teddy (Dennis Creaghan) shows up at the bar to help with the benefit, listen to TV news accounts of the Brewer case (including horrific audio of a 911 with Brewer screaming in the background) and generally antagonize his anguished son.
Under the direction of Richard Jay Simon, who shaped the play while Calarco was busy with his own theater work, all three actors give intense performances – Durkin especially. At a critical moment, when Buddy is demonstrating to Derek how a terrified Michael Brewer must have felt, watching the confrontation is nearly unbearable.
Thematically, A Measure of Cruelty aims to demonstrate how one macho admonition – be a man! – can lead to disaster, as all three characters prove. Yet the relationship of Buddy and Derek is muddy, even mystifying. Despite a relevant childhood trauma, Buddy and his story belong in a different play on a different subject. Though he writes vivid scenes and speeches, Calarco has crafted an 85-minute script that is too diffuse. A Measure of Cruelty simply doesn’t coalesce into a powerful, memorable theater experience.