Devil of Choice: A Review
Chemistry is key in any play detailing the perils and pitfalls of human relations and relationships. There must be a synergy of character, style, and purpose to make all our foibles seem real and viable in a dramatic form. Devil of Choice is a sexually charged, tense yet funny, menage-a-trois of strong acting, crisp writing, and well finessed directing that makes for a very satisfying theatrical affair. This world premiere production on stage at the Cherry Lane Theatre, and presented by the Labyrinth Theater Company, is an exceptional piece of work that studies what makes us tick, both good and bad, in the world of human nature and in the midst of lust filled passion. The story takes place in the constrained world of academia and revolves around the academics that are caged within it.
Our characters all work at the local university somewhere in the middle of the country where identities and secrets can easily get lost in the everyday doldrums and the wants and desires that bubble just beneath their polished surfaces. Sal is a very popular literature professor teaching Goethe’s Faust. The devil is in the good hands of this charismatic teacher who basks in the adoration of his pupils. Sal’s dragged his wife Pepper, a former violinist who now works in the school’s music library, with him to his new posting. Pepper is devoted to Sal and he likes it that way. But it isn’t long before Sal finds his mistress. The next in what has probably been a long line of them. Delia is one of the college’s administrators. All three of them are bound together by work and play as Sal insists that the two woman become friends. Thus locked in a triangle, the games begin.
This world revolves around Sal and David Zayas gives a powerful and commanding performance as the misogynistic Don Juan of the hallowed halls. He doesn’t just walk the stage, he prowls. He doesn’t just speak, he orates. He doesn’t just seduce, he takes. One could accuse him of sucking the oxygen out of the room by his shear presence but he always leaves just enough to give you one last gasp. You want to hate him but you just can’t.
Elizabeth Canavan as Pepper is the dark horse here. This is a character that could easily be lost as just the typical unfortunate wife. In her estimable hands Pepper is a sad yet oddly happy woman in that quirky way that you know hides so much loneliness and pain just below the surface. She gives, and Sal takes, and he takes, but Pepper doesn’t take that for too long. Her own will finds its way back as she uncovers the hidden truths and lies of her marriage.
Florencia Lozano’s performance is sexy. Her Delia has the brains to go with the body. She also has the skill sets to go toe to toe with Sal. As the seduction plays out it’s interesting to watch as she reels Sal in while giving him the illusion of control. Sadly poor Delia is not that all together herself. She suffers from wanting more, and wanting more from Sal is a complicated thing.
This fast moving ninety-minute freight train filled with emotional baggage is written by Maggie Diaz Bofil and make no mistake about it she is in control of her characters and her audience from the moment the lights go dark and the first words are spoken. This is a writer whose transitions are smooth as silk as she moves from very comic moments to real, heartfelt, and tragic revelations. She has several tricks up her sleeve to make that happen.
Sal’s lectures, given directly to the audience, in which he demands your participation with a dark charm and confident knowledge of his subject draw you in closer and closer. It’s a trap to make you like him and she sets it up beautifully. Her women are real. They’re very funny. They’re also broken but they’re stronger in the broken places. You can identify with them and when the time comes you realize that while Ms. Bofil has given the power to Sal, it’s the women that are ultimately the one’s in control. She’s also given us a fourth character in the form of violinist Melisa McGregor. A constant bathed in red light upstage right presence whose music drives the story along through the twenty or so scenes that tell this story. The music of the violin and the rhythm of the words stitch everything together seamlessly.
All of this is under the slick and stylish direction of Shira Lee Shalit. There’s a lot to rein in and it’s all assuredly done. She is yet another woman in this predominantly female driven production that manages to keep all things in balance. There is very delicate work being done here. This is a play that could have easily turned into an over the top, mansplaining, weak woman as victims free for all mess. This director, this writer, these actors, and their production team have made sure that Devil of Choice is a superbly acted play of substance that revels in the devils we all face.
Cherry Lane Theatre 38 Commerce Street New York, NY 10014 212.989.2020 $20
Edward Medina is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) and welcomes comments at EdwardMedinaAuthor@gmail.com.