Matthew Lombardo has a type — when he writes a play, that is. Pushovers and girls next-door don’t do it for this dramatist.
His previous works about Katharine Hepburn and Tallulah Bankhead have shown that he likes his women gutsy and dominant, wearing psychological scars like battle ribbons.
Now, in "High," a provocative but not always believable play at the Booth Theatre, he has added another adornment for its fictional heroine: a Catholic cross.
It goes with the uniform (simple black slacks and matching sweater and blue blouse) of Sister Jamison Connelly, a nun and rehab drug-counselor who has more in common with a gritty Barbara Stanwyck film noir than "The Sound of Music."
Played by Kathleen Turner, Sister Jamison is a recovering alcoholic who curses like a sailor and bows to no one — sometimes not even God. Her full portrait slowly comes into focus as the action unfolds in director Rob Ruggiero's bare-bones staging.
A couple of doors and sticks of furniture are it.
Sister Jamison's sobriety, faith and work are all tested when Father Michael Delpapp (Stephen Kunken, in a thankless part) puts her in charge of the recovery of Cody Randall (an intense Evan Jonigkeit).
He’s a 19-year-old gay prostitute, drug dealer and crime suspect. Why is Delpapp so insistent she take the case? That's part of a mystery rippling under the surface.
Turner, seen on stage in 2005’s "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," brings irresistible gusto to a star turn filled with virtues. Her work is credible, clean and honest.
Even when "High" isn't.
The collision of religion and recovery is packed with dramatic potential. Why people fall, how they get up, the persistence of shame and the limits of intervention — personal or divine — all make for fertile territory.
But Lombardo, an ex-addict himself, seems keen on making the work a twisty melodramatic hand-wringer.
All three characters have extreme backgrounds, with enough dark shadows and skeletons in their closets to fill a cemetery. It could happen. But it obscures the point of the play.
His gravest sin comes in Sister Jamison’s monologues, which pepper the play. They involve her, a boy from her past "all lanky and tattooed" and her sister, Teresa. Turner’s whisky-soaked voice assumes a dreamy quality in these recollections. Only in the final moments do you understand the whole, terrible truth of the story and realize what she’s been saying, and the way she’s been saying it, has been manipulative and false.
The device is meant to be a final gripping jolt. But it's a buzz-kill for "High."
To be remotely bearable, the ham-fisted melodrama "High" requires a larger-than-life icon who can sink her teeth into its ripe dialogue, then chomp.
Thankfully, it has Kathleen Turner.
As in "Looped" -- their recent play about Tallulah Bankhead -- author Matthew Lombardo and director Rob Ruggiero have devised an old-fashioned vehicle for an old-fashioned star.
Making her first Broadway appearance in five years, Turner plays Sister Jamison "Jamie" Connelly, a drug counselor at a Catholic rehab center. Jamie's so badass that her supervisor, Father Michael Delpapp (Stephen Kunken), passes her a case that involves illegal substances and underage gay sex.
Cody Randall (Evan Jonigkeit) is out of central casting, junkie subdivision. He's a little lost 19-year-old: His torso is mottled with sores, his limbs shiver in withdrawal and he has attitude to burn. When Cody shoots up, the actor channels Linda Blair in "The Exorcist." Subtle this ain't.
Indeed, "High" has twists and revelations, but no suspense. Nobody will bat an eye upon learning about Sister Jamie's stormy past, or the reasons Father Michael is so invested in Cody's well-being. And when someone eventually makes a direct appeal to God, you think, "What took so long?"
Indeed, everything's foreshadowed with clumsy insistence. While the play clearly hits close to home for Lombardo -- who's been candid about his own faith and past drug problem -- its purple prose and potboiler flourishes could easily have come from a 1960s "social issues" flick.
There are also odd inconsistencies. Sister Jamie complains so much about Cody being a tough nut to crack that you wonder who this supposedly experienced counselor usually works with -- housewives with a Percocet problem? It's as if she hasn't been really tested until now, which makes little sense.
But all of this is inconsequential: What matters is La Turner.
"Ooh," she coos at Cody, "little boy." It's a taunting purr that tells both him and the audience who's boss. Delish. Then Turner adds a flourish: She crosses her ankles and, as if spring-loaded, smoothly lifts up from her chair. You want to yell out "bravo!" -- though you should save that for the scene in which Sister Jamie wrestles the naked Cody to the ground.
Now if we could only get Turner back onstage in a role worthy of her.
Heavy doses of sarcasm are probably not a recommended therapy for recovering addicts. And yet as wielded by Kathleen Turner’s Sister Jamison Connelly in “High,” the sensation-stuffed drama by Matthew Lombardo that opened Tuesday night at the Booth Theater, the withering retort ultimately achieves better results than more soothing approaches.
And when it is channeled through Ms. Turner’s sandpapery basso, sarcasm has a ferocious comic bite that makes the early innings of Mr. Lombardo’s improbable drama about faith, recovery and redemption crackle with lively humor. Biting into Sister Jamie’s mordant verbal assaults on a recalcitrant drug addict, all but smacking her lips like a gourmet savoring al dente pasta, Ms. Turner makes a feast of largely unexceptional dialogue.
Sister Jamie, as she’s called, works as a counselor at a live-in rehab center. She is none too pleased when her boss, Father Michael Delpapp (Stephen Kunken), assigns her a particularly challenging case, a dead-eyed 19-year-old druggie, Cody Randall (Evan Jonigkeit), who was found strung out on heroin in a motel room in the company of a 14-year-old boy dead from an overdose.
Still exhausted and suffering from withdrawal symptoms, the sullen Cody greets Sister Jamie’s attempts to probe into his past with snickering contempt. But Sister Jamie is unruffled. She’s not the kind of nun likely to break into songs about raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, or greet her charge’s hostilities by waving a wimple as a white flag.
Sister Jamie eschews a habit to dress in a figure-slimming black suit, with a small crucifix pin the only advertisement of her calling. Her fondness for cursing would bring a blush to the cheek of a longshoreman. And she is frank about her own struggles with addiction and her tortured emotional past. When Cody haltingly begins confessing that he smokes pot and snorts cocaine, she is unimpressed. “I did all that in the ’70s,” she cracks, adding one of her customary expletives.
“High,” directed by Rob Ruggiero, isn’t a particularly subtle or deep drama, despite some fancy narration about the conversion of St. Augustine and the mysterious ways of God in shaping human destinies. (It’s about on the level of “Looped,” Mr. Lombardo’s formulaic play about Tallulah Bankhead, which briefly played on Broadway last season and which was also directed by Mr. Ruggiero.) But it does afford Ms. Turner’s fans a choice opportunity to bask in her undeniable star wattage. Her performance as the tough but troubled Sister Jamie is funny, consistently entertaining and at times satisfyingly hammy.
An actress who does not shy from the savvy deployment of outright mannerism, Ms. Turner plants long, portentous pauses in her many addresses to the audience, effectively juicing the play’s steady stream of revelations. She flings herself into the drama’s more lurid episodes with impressive physical aplomb, as when a drug-addled Cody strips naked and threatens to assault his would-be benefactress. And when Sister Jamie reveals the dark truth about the events that sent her spiraling toward addiction, Ms. Turner convincingly exposes the raw wounds beneath the leathery exterior and the urgency of Sister Jamie’s need to believe in the possibility of redemption.
Mr. Jonigkeit, in the play’s other meaty role, doesn’t fare quite as well. The son of a drug-addicted prostitute, Cody was dispatched to bring home customers before he was a teenager. Soon thereafter he was selling sex for drug money under the tutelage of one of his mother’s former patrons, who had also repeatedly raped him. (“High” certainly does not stint on grisly detail.)
But while Cody has been amply supplied with pathologies and an outlandishly toxic past, he doesn’t seem to possess any other notable qualities. As written by Mr. Lombardo, he’s more a sensational case history from an episode of “Law & Order: SVU” than a fully fleshed-out human being.
Mr. Jonigkeit strikes sullen poses and conveys with every twitch the jittery anxiousness of a longtime addict less than committed to recovery. He writhes and hisses in heated ecstasy, like one of those fashionable young vampires tasting fresh blood, when Cody relapses into his old bad habits. But there isn’t much going on beneath the flashy surfaces of the performance; Cody’s suffering, which borders on the suicidal, lacks a convincing emotional core.
The reliable Mr. Kunken (Andy Fastow in the short-lived “Enron”) imbues the mostly functional role of Father Delpapp with a stiff rectitude occasionally inflected with wry humor. (Only Mr. Kunken was not in the premiere production I saw last summer at TheaterWorks in Hartford.) I’ll spare ticket-holding theatergoers the real gaspers, but it’s fair to disclose that Sister Jamie, in ferreting out the truth about Cody’s past, discovers that Father Delpapp’s motives in bringing him to the rehab center are more mixed than he at first lets on.
The play’s minimalist sets, by David Gallo, have a somber elegance well suited to the more lofty passages in Mr. Lombardo’s play, in which Sister Jamie reflects on faith and temptation, or Father Delpapp quotes from the Bible to persuade Sister Jamie to persevere with Cody because she could be the instrument God has chosen to redeem him.
But most of “High” consists of fraught tussles among the three characters over Cody’s fate and the tough love necessary to put him on the right path. Liberally sprinkled with jargon from the scripture of recovery programs, with a further layer of religiosity, the play is essentially a high-toned version of one of those addictive series about addiction that have become a subgenre of the reality television boom. Whether you prefer the foghorn drawl of Ms. Turner or the more soothing tones of Dr. Drew, of “Celebrity Rehab” fame, is essentially just a matter of taste.
Was Kathleen Turner ever an actor? Maybe, but she's not one anymore. All she does nowadays is waddle onstage and hawk the self-parody that long ago became her stock in trade. To say that Ms. Turner plays an alcoholic nun in Matthew Lombardo's "High" comes close to giving away the whole game. Yes, Sister Jamison Connelly is a foul-mouthed, tough-talking dame with a heart of brass-plated gold, and yes, Ms. Turner's Janie-One-Note performance is so thickly mannered as to suggest that the producers of "High" have engaged a Kathleen Turner robot instead of the real thing. She rattles off her lines in a hoarse, staccato baritone voice that sounds as if it had been brought into being through daily doses of Drano administered by mouth, and she never does anything that you can't see coming several hundred miles away.
Neither does Mr. Lombardo, a specialist in coarsely wrought vehicles for Hollywood refugees of a certain age. Last year it was "Looped," in which Valerie Harper played Tallulah Bankhead. This year it's "High," in which Ms. Turner attempts to save the body and soul of Cody (Evan Jonigkeit), a dope-addled street hustler whose self-destructive behavior is enabled by the solicitude of a well-meaning but foolish priest (Stephen Kunken). "High" is the sort of play in which a character (Ms. Turner, naturally) utters sentences like "Okay, God, here's the deal," then expects the audience not to giggle contemptuously in response.
Not all of "High" is as bad as that. Mr. Lombardo, who is himself a recovering drug addict, has written several speeches for Cody that have the bright, hard ring of remembered nightmares. If the whole play had been that honest, it might have been worth seeing. But Sister Jamison is a star-turn, not a person, and every time she makes her entrance, truth makes its exit.
Rob Ruggiero, who is one of the best musical-comedy directors on the East Coast, does all he can to make "High" seem real, though his staging of the nude scene (whoops, forgot to mention that!) is painfully gratuitous. For what it's worth, Messrs. Jonigkeit and Kunken are both excellent.
"High" is playing next door to Stephen Adly Guirgis's "The Motherf**ker With the Hat," a comedy about addiction that is as bluntly funny and crisply written as "High" is false and manipulative. If you're looking for a good time, be sure to pick the door on the right.