Jon Marans’ “A Raw Space,” now having its world premiere at Bristol Riverside Theater, is a perfect example of the risks involved in staging a new play. Many of the wagers taken in this surprisingly funny and moving drama pay off; a few leave a little something to be desired. But the play is captivating in the moments that work and interesting in the bits that aren’t quite ironed out yet. “A Raw Space” lets out all the elements of a newborn work — wonder, warts, and all — in front of an audience.
On the surface, “A Raw Space” seems in keeping with the current trend of four-character relationship plays like Marber’s “Closer” and Reza’s “The God of Carnage.” Here we have two well-heeled Manhattan couples meeting up in an unfinished, $13 million high-rise apartment. Moneyed press agent Susu (Anette Michelle Sanders) and her architect husband Mark (Keith Baker) entertain Susu’s distanced friend, Brenda (Madi Distefano), who also married an architect, the rising star Rod (Jack Koenig). The play sets forth a whole mess of subtexts and jealousies and conversations about wealth, and at the end of the first scene, Susu has set in motion a contest: Rod and Mark will both submit designs for the apartment’s interiors, with the best design, in her eyes, winning.
What a cutthroat move for Susu to do to her husband, making him compete for her tastes and affections against the professional and personal talents of another man. But that’s the whole point of this play: All four of these people are lying to one another and themselves, about issues large and small, and both women have a field day in playing the men against each another. Perhaps all’s fair in love and architecture.
Jealousy and manipulation form a plot right out of Shakespeare (including allusions in the script to “MacBeth”), with each of the four conspiring to outmaneuver the other three. It is interesting and grabby and a little hard to watch as we see each of the four actors capably descend into painful pits of manipulation. We’ve all done this, in one way or another. It’s easy to see a lover try to hold on to someone slipping away and try to control instead of love, and these four get very creative in doing just that. It’s fun to watch when it gets going.
Susan Atkinson’s direction has some fun moments, including taking advantage of Roman Tatarowicz’s gorgeous, sprawling set design to “flip” the opening scene and show us a conversation, literally, from two sides. The direction, by playwright Marans, becomes a little indelicate, however, in the first act’s moments of trying to soften up these four bourgeoisie Manhattanite gladiators. It’s well into the second act before we really get a grip on why these people should be likable.
‘A Raw Space” is at its best when it shows off a different side or two of its characters. Late in the play, we get a surprisingly touching look at exactly how infidelity and lies, in myriad forms, work against trust, money, communication, and artistry. And the play zigs a little when I expect it to zag: After a good hour or so of watching these people shred honesty like a lion tears into a gazelle, we’re treated to some deliciously positive conversation and soul-bearing between these people that actually seems organic and real. It is a nice release from all the elevated, New York money tension on which the play builds its foundation.
This world premiere is a solid offering from BRT. It may not soar to the heights of BRT’s glorious “Gypsy” earlier in the season, but I admire their bravery at staging the maiden voyage of “A Raw Space.” I look forward to seeing if, in its next incarnation, this play smooths out some of the more jolting wrinkles as it moves towards the expertly crafted piece it could be.
"A Raw Space," Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol. Through Sunday, February 19. World premiere drama by Jon Marans about two high powered couples in an interior design competition. $30 to $50. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.