“Set Up” is a play about a long and excruciating blind date that feels exactly like a long and excruciating blind date.
As a piece of conceptual art designed to transfer the gnawing boredom and discomfort of its characters directly to the audience, Dan Noonan’s play might have a successful run in the Museum of Modern Art. But as theater, and especially as the winner of Alleyway’s 2012 reputedly prestigious Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition, it can only be considered a creative failure.
Even the setup of “Set Up” is upsetting.
The play features two people who have been coerced by their friends to go on a blind date to a Manhattan restaurant that appears to have been decorated and staffed by Tim Burton. One is a successful and neurotic doctor with Type 1 diabetes (Joyce Stilson) who is prone to oversharing; the other is a calorie-obsessed right-wing lawyer (Guy Tomassi) who seems to be in the middle of a perpetual and life-threatening nervous breakdown.
We are meant to believe that these two ships sinking in the night would first agree to meet one another, then feign disgust with one another over appetizers and finally fall in a sort of tentative love by the time the baked Alaska arrives for dessert.
For a one-act comedy, this idea might be marginally sustainable: Two wounded characters slapped together against their will in strange surroundings who gradually chip away at one another’s emotional shields to form the beginnings of a romantic bond. But the prospect of two full acts of Noonan’s writing, which can be clever and insightful in spots but depends far too much on extended cellphone conversations and warmed-up clichés, is enough to make you ask for the check before intermission.
Everything about the production is overdone. Todd Warfield, a gifted director of comedies who suppressed his urge to campify in his fine 2008 Alleyway production of “Rabbit Hole” but is otherwise known for his outrageous style, has missed the mark here.
He lets his actors go overboard and seems not to have insisted on much nuance. The results are less than exciting. Tomassi, who has been charming in his many roles at Buffalo United Artists and O’Connell and Company, has been allowed to exaggerate his nervous ticks to the point of total distraction. Stilson does better as the overworked doctor, but her eye-rolls and affected displeasure are still much too broad for such an intimate play and theater.
Joey Bucheker plays the flamboyant waiter, providing some nice moments of comic relief in his seemingly randomly chosen Southern accent, and he does what he can with the thinly written, overgrown frat boy who is the brother of Tomassi’s character. Stephanie Bax does well enough doubling as the restaurant’s agitated chef and as a colorful, if not exactly helpful, confidant to Stilson’s character.
Noonan does explore some genuinely interesting topics here: mental and physical illness, post-9/11 anxiety and the struggles of recovering emotionally from broken marriages and relationships. But he wraps them up in such an unattractive package that they have trouble shining through.
In the end, “Set Up” is a date you may want to skip.
1½ stars(Out of four)
What: “Set Up”
When: Through Nov. 16
Where: Alleyway Theatre, 1 Curtain Up Alley
Tickets: $13 to $25