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'In the Air' is an uneven study of human greed

LOWELL -- Richard Dresser's "Something in the Air" has a bit of an identity crisis. It's meticulously styled as film noir but is much more spoof in its execution. It purports to be about greed but only shows desperation. At the same time, it's maniacally if not grotesquely funny, and it does offer a fresh look at the way regret about past decisions can fester and grow into myopia.

The story follows down-on-his-luck Walker (Jeremiah Wiggins), who gets involved in a supposedly guaranteed investment scheme to buy a terminally ill man's life-insurance policy. Walker finds himself inexplicably compelled to befriend his investment, the irritable Cram (Buzz Bovshow). As Cram's decline decelerates, Walker's desperation grows, even though he also falls in love with a woman named Sloane (Deborah LaCoy) and solicits the professional help of both a financial analyst (Richard D. Snee) and a registered nurse (Henny Russell).

Although last to appear, Russell is first on the list of reasons this Merrimack Repertory Theatre production manages to be entertaining. While many of the other ensemble members are saddled with one-note characters, Russell breathes delicious, complicated life into her repressed Nurse Holloway, and thus into all of Act 2. Wiggins plays Walker as a high-strung quasi-Everyman, with a little bit of Niles from TV's "Frasier" thrown in.

As Sloane, LaCoy seems to switch between vapid and vacant once too often, destroying the opportunity for some warmth in Dresser's otherwise raw look at the human condition. Snee, as Neville the financial analyst, delivers a sturdy performance that occasionally (if forgivably) seems modeled on Leslie Nielsen's scenes from "Naked Gun." As Cram, the play's amoral center, Bovshow is disappointingly stale.

Despite this unevenness, director Melia Bensussen -- who also directed the play's 1999 world premiere, at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, N.Y. -- keeps the action moving, with tremendous help from her designers. Scenic designer Judy Gailen establishes a cinematic environment: Throughout the play, two large trapezoidal panels glide across the stage with purpose, alternately carving out and blocking out distinct spaces for the play's many scene locations. Gailen's set, along with Dan Kotlowitz's sure-handed lights, ultimately achieve nuances of noir despite being deluged by the somewhat misguided sound design by Jeff Jones.

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