Except for the months following Columbine, it is just about the worst time in American history to stage a comedy about school shootings—and while The Amoralists are not known for their timidity, they have rewritten Collision, currently running at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, excising some of the jokes for the sake of decency. It is hard to determine what exactly has been lost in this process, but the work that has made it to the stage is, much like their last effort, The Bad and the Better, a fascinating mess: funny, smart, narratively and thematically muddled, but endlessly watchable.
Grange (James Kautz) shows up to his first day of college ready to manipulate anyone into becoming a member of his “family.” When his roommate, Bromley (Nick Lawson), has already camped out on the bed he prefers, he convinces him to flip for it. He seems to lose the toss, but doesn’t show Bromley the coin and insists he won: “I could have easily shown you the coin, Bromley, that was the Easy Road. That’s the Road most traveled. I chose to establish our relationship on a more complicated footing. I enjoy the dialectic. I savor the dialectic. I had Great Expectations for us.” His philosophical misanthropy soon leads to the purchase of automatic weapons, and his vicious charm helps him to recruit an impressionable coed, Doe (Anna Stromberg), and a bitter, old professor, Denton (Michael Cullen). The four form a modern day Leopold and Loeb. Grange has a phenomenal talent for locating a person’s vulnerability, and then convincing them that his exploitation is an act of love.
Mr. Kautz is terrific in the lead role; he handles the platitudes that Grange regurgitates with just the right amount of ostensible sincerity and undergraduate pretentiousness. He also has a delightfully coy, pressing manner. After he seduces Doe, Bromley pops up from under his covers in the adjacent bed, shocking the poor girl: “What’s he doing there?” she shrieks, and Grange replies, with perfect calm, “I imagine he was resting. Were you resting, Bromley?” The character recalls, somewhat, the Lady from Dubuque in Edward Albee’s semi-forgotten masterpiece, a woman who, surrounded by hysterics, always remains perfectly agreeable. Mr. Lawson, too, has a wonderful naturalness—he stumbles over his lines, which can be initially disconcerting, but it suits Bromley, who gradually becomes a more and more willing pawn.
Still, Collision ultimately feels like a promising rough draft. There is an awkward moment when Professor Denton, speaking about the meteors that destroyed the dinosaurs, asks, “Was it just a random collision, a throw of the celestial dice?” Even Mr. Cullen’s delightful smoker’s voice—made of “sand and glue,” to quote David Bowie—cannot save such amateurish writing. This is a haphazard Rope, a work interesting enough to warrant serious rewrites. The Amoralists are a terrific voice in New York theater, and I am fully confident that they will eventually produce their great play. Collision is not that play—but with some work, it could be.