‘Devil of Choice’: His Soul’s for Sale, and You Can Pick It Up Cheap

Posted May 28, 2018 9:51 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Maggie Diaz Bofill’s “Devil of Choice,” a fizzle of a #MeToo gloss on “Faust,” imagines Goethe’s tragic hero as a smug English professor called Sal.

Sal is a toad. He shames his wife, Pepper, in front of their friends. When his English department colleague Delia suggests she might sit in on his class, he thinks it’s flirty to assert his dominance by saying, “I might just let you.”

Granted, he doesn’t seduce and impregnate a 14-year-old girl, as Faust does, or cause that girl to murder her mother with a sleeping potion. He doesn’t even make much of a deal with the Devil. But he does cheat on Pepper with Delia, and then vice versa, and whine for sympathy in between. He’s Faustian only in the sense that he strives for intensity of experience at whatever cost to those around him.

Could someone write an insightful play that asks why such men still see themselves as charming and sexy when they are patently awful? Maybe. But “Devil of Choice,” a Labyrinth Theater Company production that opened Monday at the Cherry Lane Theater, is not that play. A medley of short scenes interlarded with violin solos, it lacks coherence; its argument never comes into focus and, most problematically, its women don’t either.

Pepper (Elizabeth Canavan) is a throwback to the kind of wifey character who has been the subject of “woman problem” plays from Ibsen on. She has given up on what we are assured is her great talent as a violinist (hence the interludes) and has a dead-end job as a music librarian. Worse, at least in the play’s cosmology, she’s out of shape and a pack rat.

But when she befriends the athletic and ambitious Delia after moving with Sal to a new college town, she begins to transform. It is emblematic of the play’s thin concept of transformation that the signs of her change are a garage sale and a tennis dress.

At the same time, Delia (Florencia Lozano) is transforming in the opposite direction, eventually becoming the binge-eating prisoner of Sal’s sexual magnetism. She’s almost a more pernicious stereotype than Pepper: the smart lady who can’t help herself.

So who is this overwhelming alpha Adonis, running miles at dawn and wowing the undergrads at noon? (Yes, we are treated to periodic excerpts from his annoyingly cute lectures on “Faust.”)

Sal (David Zayas) is basically a middle-aged bear whose errant moral compass and infatuation with romantic literature have led him into some grandiose thinking about ordinary life problems. His devil’s pact is nothing more than what the rest of us call marriage, an institution in which you exchange excitement for safety, novelty for familiarity. Even then, he can’t endure the trade-off, becoming cruel and finally unintelligible instead.

That at least is a playable arc, and Zayas — a New York stage fixture perhaps best known as Angel Batista on Showtime’s “Dexter” — is commanding in the role. He makes Sal’s unpleasant charisma believable.

Canavan and Lozano aren’t so lucky, but if they cannot build logical characters from the twisty road map provided, they are good enough actors to find their own ways. Canavan somehow turns an overblown postcoital phone call into a comic gem, and Lozano manages to make herself (if not us) cry during an unlikely monologue in which she compares herself to a fungus.

All three performers are longtime members of Labyrinth, which was founded in 1992 as the Latino Actors Base. After a period of terrific success, much of it involving the plays of Stephen Adly Guirgis under the direction of Philip Seymour Hoffman, the company has recently been undergoing a rocky transition. Even so, it has continued to produce some very good work, including “Homos, or Everyone in America” by Jordan Seavey and “Sunset Baby” by Dominique Morisseau.

Though “Devil of Choice” isn’t in that league, it offers an opportunity for fine actors to explore new material, almost as if in scene-study class. (The production, minimally staged by the director Shira-Lee Shalit, reinforces that impression.) And in small doses — if not the contrived big picture — the writing is often smart. When Delia complains to Sal that the “whole double standard thing” implicit in their arrangement “doesn’t work,” Sal flatly answers, “Yes it does.” That’s male privilege summed up in three words.

Playwright privilege too: In plays like “Devil of Choice,” the characters do as they’re told. There can be fun in that but not much impact because real characters aren’t so obedient. They do only as they must.


Production Notes:

‘Devil of Choice’

Through June 9 at Cherry Lane Theater, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, labtheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

By Maggie Diaz Bofill; directed by Shira-Lee Shalit; original music by Melisa McGregor; sets by Raul Abrego; costumes by Lara De Bruijn; lighting by Kia Rogers; sound by Daniel Melnick; production stage manager, Megan Tomei. Presented by Labyrinth Theater Company.

Cast: Elizabeth Canavan (Pepper), Florencia Lozano (Delia) and David Zayas (Salvatore).