BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
Playwright Matthew Lombardo probably is best known for his clever “Tea at Five” bio-drama about Katharine Hepburn and “Looped,” his less insightful bio-show about Tallulah Bankhead.
Lombardo’s latest play, “High,” which opened Tuesday at the Booth Theatre, does not center upon a celebrated star but it surely boasts one in its fine leading lady, Kathleen Turner, whose typically husky tones and formidable presence are intently channeled into her character as an unlikely nun.
Sister Jamison is a recovering alcoholic who works as a counselor in an addictions treatment clinic run by a Catholic diocese. She has a foul mouth, a bullying manner and a dark personal tragedy about which we learn later in the two-act drama.
Sister Jamison’s new client is Cody, a hostile, strung-out 19-year-old druggie and hustler who doesn’t want to clean up his ways. No sooner does the nun begin to apply her tough love-style technique on Cody when she discovers that the boy’s uncle is Father Michael, the priest who administers the clinic.
Father Michael’s guilt-stricken lenience towards his manipulative nephew – a kid scarred by a ghastly childhood involving a junkie mom and sexual abuse – interferes with Sister Jamison’s handling of Cody.
Lombardo’s intimate drama is not a happy one. It also tends to be a familiar scenario as a former addict risk her recovery in the struggle to rescue another. Bringing God into the story lends some gravity to this well-intentioned occasion, but aside from a physical clash between the sister and the sleazebag youth in the middle of the downbeat play, “High” offers rather dull doings. Better suited for TV, the material gains little stature from being conventionally shaped as a Broadway event.
For a while, Turner’s magnetic, sincerely-felt incarnation of salty Sister Jamison energizes director Rob Ruggiero’s restrained production. The story’s succession of gradually revealed personal secrets grows increasingly wearisome, however, while the friction between the nun and the priest never catches fire. Stephen Kunken cultivates a dignified nature as Father Michael but it’s unfortunate that Evan Jonigkeit’s sneering attitude garners scant sympathy for Cody, who really seems more malevolent than misguided.
“High” continues at the Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., New York. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.highonbroadway.com.