By MARK BLANKENSHIP
How long does it take to build a fire? Make a can of soup? Repair a table that an angry drunk smashed to pieces?
To find out, you can time the scenes in Regrets, Manhattan Theatre Club's carefully paced new drama, now at City Center.
Set in Nevada in 1954, the play follows life in a "divorce camp." Sixty years ago, Nevada had the most liberal divorce laws in the country, so men would move there just long enough to establish residency and split from their wives. Sometimes, they lived in special campgrounds, forming temporary communities of the listless and the lonely.
In Regrets , the community mixes card games and beer runs with unpleasant secrets, and the consequences get heavy. If we feel those consequences, it's arguably because the play takes its time defining them. Scenes are long and conversations are rich, and if someone sweeps the floor, he sweeps the entire thing. This creates a methodical calm, even as emotions flare.
For playwright Matt Charman, that's the point. "The simple act of waiting for six weeks for a divorce requires the drama to wait," he says. "You need to take your time with it. Watching how someone lights a fire or watching how someone looks at their groceries or talks about what the meal's going to be that night---that's the truth of these situations. You could play it at a hundred miles an hour, and it wouldn't feel truthful."
By writing scenes with slow-burn character development, Charman, who's British, also references classic plays like Bus Stop and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. "For me, approaching this subject matter, it's not only about understanding the history and the moral standpoints of the 50s," he says. "It's about the dramatic world of the 50s."
He continues, "A lot of modern plays feel like TV shows. They're fast. They have quick scenes. They're very punchy, and there could be a version of this play that's written in that idiom, which is twenty-five scenes and very fast. But I felt like if I did a modern structure on that backdrop, it would look like it was a gimmick that it was set in the 50s, because it wouldn't move like we remember art from that period moving."
Charman feels the play's format helped the actors master their roles. He specifically mentions the opening scene, when the older men grill a mysterious teenager.
"I think the entire process has been able to breathe and move in the same way the play does," he says. "Those guys are able to take the time to know, when they ask this eighteen year-old a question, what [their characters] really want to know. What does it say about them? And it means the rehearsal process became this very enjoyable exploration."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor