One of two world premieres in Theatre West’s annual Writers-in-Rep series, Jule Selbo’s “Boxes” is a taut exercise in psychological manipulation that is one of those rarities in the contemporary theater -- a classically crafted play with well-delineated characters and a satisfyingly linear plot.
And although one might argue that the climax seems a bit busy and rushed, Selbo’s suspenseful drama nonetheless challenges our expectations and respects our intelligence.
The action, set in present-day Manhattan, revolves around young medical school student Sigourney (Caitlyn Gallogly), who has recently lost her grant and is scrambling to make ends meet. Estranged from her father, Sigourney feels unloved and unworthy, and the reluctance of her boyfriend Marv (Greg Nussen) to commit fully to their relationship plays to her deepest insecurities.
Highly recommended by her professor-mentor (Ashlee LaPine), Sigourney is hired by Dr. Robert Eden (Eddie Alfano) for a mysterious research project. As Sigourney falls increasingly under Eden’s spell, she may find herself embroiled in an arcane “experiment” of unprecedented cruelty.
Selbo’s dialogue has a desultory density that seems perfectly apt -- just what these sort of intellectuals might say to one another in moments of emotional exigency. Regrettably, the cast, which includes Oliver Singer as Marv’s classmate and pal, has an uneven tone that even typically deft director Mary Lou Belli fails to amalgamate into a consistent whole.
The linchpin of the show, Gallogly is authoritatively naturalistic, as is the nicely understated Nussen, a real find. Yet Alfano’s oddly muted turn seems calibrated for close-ups, while LaPine is arch to the point of caricature.
To his credit, although he seems initially deficient in the compressed emotional energy requisite to his role, Alfano later combusts into belated believability, generating genuine sexual heat with Gallogly. It’s the saving grace of his performance -- a sputtering fuse that finally takes fire.
“Boxes,” Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 31. $25. (323) 851-7977. www.theatrewest.org Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.