Little Misnomer

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There’s a school of acting that’s come into vogue lately, one we’re increasingly, if unwittingly, familiar with. We see it on stage, in film, on TV. Let’s call it hyperrealism: acting that mimics how people really walk, talk, speak, think, act, feel and even breathe. It’s done so well that its power to engross is virtually nuclear-tipped. No point in assessing the antecedents of this style; simply put, it’s why reality TV is hot.

It’s also why the acting in Stephen Belber’s A Small, Melodramatic Story, presented by Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz’s LAByrinth Theater Company and directed by Lucie Tiberghien at the Public Theater, is so arresting. The story (which is neither small nor melodramatic) is narrated by O, a young widow played by Quincy Tyler Bernstine with the matter-of-factness of an unflappable network anchor. This is a typical quality in Belber’s rapidly growing canon of plays: He was one of the original actor-writers on The Laramie Project and other docudrama endeavors, and it’s one of the hidden strengths in his writing.

Six years ago, O’s husband Burt, a veteran of the first Gulf War, died. Ever since then, O has hung out with Keith (Lee Sellars), Burt’s old buddy. A government sleuth of sorts (the play occurs in D.C.), Keith not only pesters O for permission to dig into what triggered Burt’s death but repeatedly makes clear he’s in love with her, a passion she leaves quietly unrequited. Beyond his patience and persistence, Keith’s mistake is letting O meet Perry (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a middle-aged cop with aspirations to sing professionally. In a shot, a rivalry for O’s love develops. Also in a shot—three shots, actually, 15 years earlier—Perry killed a suspected teenage drug dealer.

If there were a connection for O between Burt’s death and Perry’s long-ago killing of the teen, maybe her reaction would be more understandable. As it is, there’s no reason for her to search out Cleo (a closed-eyed, stoned-looking Carlo Alban), the younger brother of the dead dealer, who was nine when he witnessed his brother’s death. Realistically, either she likes Perry and accepts his claim that he was exonerated or not. Realistically, she’d never pose as a journalist just to get Cleo’s side of the story, an action that rekindles Cleo’s thirst for revenge.

The problem with hyperrealistic acting is that you need a plot that seems plausible in the extreme; not much in Belber’s play meets that standard. Realistically, Keith might not have waited so long for O; his reasons remain unexplored, unexplained. Realistically, O needs sufficient reasons—say, an inner demon to exorcise—for why she must dig into Perry’s past, especially since, in the timeline of the play, she’s only known Perry for a month.

Many moments—including Tiberghien’s choice to leave characters standing, sitting or staring into space after their scenes—prove galvanizing in their intensity. But again, this is the actors’ work, this raising of treasures from a vessel of dubious seaworthiness from under the surface of the stage.

Through Nov. 5. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St. (near Cooper Sq.), 212-967-7555; $45.

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