“Are they sick, or am I sick?” asked the older woman sitting next to me at Second Stage Theatre yesterday, as we broke for intermission during the world premiere of Paul Weitz’s Trust. You see, while Trust is about trust (and control and the imbalances within relationships) what sets off our protagonist, Harry, is a trip to an S&M dungeon where he meets a familiar dominatrix. The first act actually starts and ends there, and that clearly made my neighbor uncomfortable.
I wasn’t so uncomfortable. (Which made me wonder if perhaps I was sick.) But I did start to think about why this play was working for me while Make Me, which ran at the Atlantic a couple years ago and had a similar setting, didn’t. At first I thought maybe it was the actors. Make Me had actors of varying ages, none of whom I was particularly fond of beforehand. Trust stars theatre favorite Sutton Foster (who simply nails everything she tackles) and TV and movie guy Zach Braff. (Bobby Cannavale and Ari Graynor co-star.) All four actors are 30-ish, good looking people, and going in to the play I had favorable opinions of Foster and Braff. But by the end of the play, I realized that it wasn’t the difference in actors that made one show work and the other fail; the difference was that Make Me spent too much time in the dungeon while Trust actually comes up to the real world to explore the psychology of what goes on up top in our heads that would cause us to go down below. It seems that, in Weitz’s world, what’s going on up top is that we’re all damaged goods. We all want to be in control, whether or not we recognize that in ourselves.
Then again, maybe some of it was the actors. The quartet of actors in Trust are good, with one exception. Cannavale and Graynor are serviceable though their characters are not particularly likable. Braff was good, even if he had to ease into it. It seemed like he was playing an amalgam of his previous roles: In the first scene, which called for him to be goofy and charming, I felt like I was watching JD on stage. (JD is the character Braff played for eight years on the hit series, Scrubs.) As the play moved on, JD started to fade away but Braff’s movie characters started to creep in. Perhaps it was just the character of Harry: Like many of Braff’s movie roles, Harry is at a crossroads in his life and trying to choose between two paths in the hopes of discovering himself. This is not to say that Braff’s performance felt false, just too familiar.
So the exception to the “good” was Sutton Foster - who was great! This Tony-winning actress can do just about anything. In addition to having a ridiculous voice (seriously - download “Gimme Gimme” from Thoroughly Modern Millie and tell me you don’t get chills) and being a great dancer, she also an actress. And not just a musical-comedy actress: She can work it in any genre. I don’t want to give too much away about the play so I won’t be specific about her performance but I will say that she was undoubtedly the best thing about the play and certainly worth the price of admission.
While Trust was better than Make Me and the actors put on a good show, I’m still having a little trouble wrapping my brain around what exactly I want to say about Trust. I liked it - that’s simple enough. But why? Was it a schadenfreude thing? Did I like watching these damaged people beat each other (figuratively (mostly), not literally)? Did I just like Sutton Foster and Zach Braff so much that I didn’t care what was going on? I’m not sure.
In one scene, the dominatrix tells a potential client that every client needs to develop a relationship with the dominatrix - that you can’t just go to one session with one dominatrix and another with another. Rather, you must develop a rapport. When the client scoffs and asks why, the dominatrix replies, “You need someone you can trust so you know they won’t hurt you.” It was in that moment that I realized what, as an avid theatergoer, I was connecting to in this play: Trust.
I had an epiphany: We put a lot of trust in artists. We trust when we walk in to a theatre or a gallery or a concert hall that even if we’re taken on a perilous journey, there’ll be something redeeming waiting for us on the other side. There will have been a reason we went through the fire swamp. The redemption may just be that it’s entertaining; or it could be some form of catharsis; or it could teach us something. Whatever it is, we trust writers and painters and actors and dancers and musicians to show us something worth seeing. I love this aspect of art. It makes you feel connected to something and in a world where it is easier and easier to disconnect from people, it’s nice to know there’s still someone out there you can trust.