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NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - It's a surefire comic formula: Put a nebbishy, fearful guy onstage opposite a sexy dominatrix wielding a whip, and hearty guffaws are sure to be generated.
It works again in the opening scene of "Trust," a new dark comedy by filmmaker-playwright Paul Weitz ("In Good Company," "About a Boy") playing at the Second Stage Theater though September 12. It begins with an encounter between Harry (Zach Braff) and Mistress Carol (Sutton Foster). But, as both Harry and we soon learn, she actually is Prudence, his old classmate from Stuyvesant High School.
Thus begins the sexually tinged comic roundelay among four troubled characters: Harry, whose meek demeanor masks a steeliness that has made him an obscenely rich dot-com millionaire; Prudence, whose emotional hardness is all too suitable for her profession; Aleeza (Ari Graynor), Harry's wife, with whom he's trapped in a sexless marriage; and Morton (Bobby Cannavale), Prudence's thuggish, unemployed boyfriend, who immediately sees Harry as a possible meal ticket.
The playwright is trying to say something about the balance of power in relationships and the pivotal roles that sex and money can play. But the situations, including a main plot element that centers on Morton's ill-conceived blackmail scheme, are so over the top and cartoonish that it becomes impossible to care about the characters, all of whom are dislikeable in their own way.
Still, the dialogue is marked by a comic pungency that results in more than a few laughs along the way, and it's expertly delivered by the terrific cast: Braff's guileless comic demeanor works perfectly in keeping us guessing about his character's darker motives; Foster, in a rare nonmusical turn, conveys a hard-edged sexiness that is a far cry from her roles in such shows as "Shrek the Musical" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie"; Cannavale's macho bluster grows increasingly hilarious as his character becomes unhinged; and Graynor reveals a real talent for deadpan humor.
But for all their efforts, "Trust" does little more than provide momentary amusement while ultimately leaving a bad taste in one's mouth.