NEW YORK — At the beginning of Matthew Lombardo's new play "High," Cody Randall, a 19-year-old meth addict, is asked by a nun who is treating him to list all the drugs he's taken.
It doesn't take him long to realize this is no ordinary nun.
"Umm. All right. I've smoked pot," he tells her.
"Who hasn't?" replies the sister.
"Cocaine," Cody continues.
"Child's play," she says.
"'Shrooms. Acid," he says.
Nonplussed, the nun says she did all those in the '70s.
"You really don't seem like a nun," says Cody.
She is, but he's right: Played by Kathleen Turner, Sister Jamison Connelly is a brassy, feisty recovering alcoholic who unfortunately knows all too well the beast of addiction. She confronts it every day herself.
Lombardo's strong play comes at a time on Broadway where addiction and salty language is a big part of "The Motherf----- With the Hat" and where religious figures appear — "Sister Act," ''The Book of Mormon" and even "The House of Blue Leaves."
"High," which opened Tuesday at the Booth Theatre, treads carefully into issues of faith and human nature, asking whether we can ever change and if we can ever come clean. It is nicely written and has not bitten off more than it can handle, even if the audience might want more answers.
The play is helped by two stunning performances — by Turner, who pretty much never leaves the stage, and Evan Jonigkeit, making his Broadway debut as the addict Cody. Watching these two angry, broken, world-weary animals circle each other is an uncomfortable pleasure.
The premise is simple: Father Michael Delpapp (Stephen Kunken) places Cody under the care of the unconventional sister, even though he's not the run-of-the-mill addict she usually handles. The young man plays along to avoid jail, but is not ready to quit drugs and can recognize a con when he sees one.
"You people. You make yourselves feel better by trying to help guys like me," says Cody. "Well, I'm telling you right now, lady. It ain't gonna work! Cause I want to get clean just about as much as you want to get high."
It turns out, not surprisingly, that he's not far off the mark. All three characters of "High" have secrets in their past that have filled them with shame and filling that hole has been booze or drugs or God. Now grace — even more than redemption — is what they hunger for.
Turner relentlessly digs to reveal the secrets of the other two characters and steps outside the narrative structure to address the audience and give soliloquies on her own, personal and desperate path to God.
"Temptation," she says. "When you give into it? It never ends well."
Lombardo, who has drawn on his own battle with addiction to create very personal play, has drawn Cody as a strutting, arrogant, sneering junkie and Jonigkeit holds nothing back giving him life.
He slouches about sneering at the do-gooders and sucking on the drawstring of his hoodie. He gets high on stage with such truth it's scary. He menaces the sister, he strips naked, he shakes like a lost boy and he sobs. It is a remarkably brave performance from an actor it would be wise to keep tabs on.
Turner is brave in her own way — frumpy, foul-mouthed, clearly delving into own flirtation with addiction and championing Lombardo's play for the past few years as it prepared for Broadway. She is the play's fairy godmother and soul.
Director Rob Ruggiero, who also teamed up with Lombardo on the playwright's "Looped," wisely stays out of the way of the words, never messing around with distractions and clearly helping pull grim honesty out of his actors.
Sets by David Gallo are minimal, conveying emptiness and sadness with his use of just a few chairs. The action often takes place between two doors, playing up the starkness of the choices in front of the two main characters — to be high or not to be high.
The overlapping — and sometimes contradictory — needs of the three characters come to a boil at the end, which is full of poignancy if not definite solutions. For some it is a release, for others just another guilt to bear — stuck between heaven and hell with a bitter, gnawing need for love.
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