A tip for playwrights: If you've had trouble placing your script at South Coast Repertory, change the setting to Borneo and make the hero an innocent American in the clutches of the CIA.
"Rum and Coke" and "Highest Standard of Living" both followed that pattern, and now we have "Haut Gout" by Allan Havis at SCR's Second Stage. The setting is Haiti and the hero is an idealistic American doctor (Charles Lanyer) who thinks he's there on a U. S. government grant to develop a new kind of infant formula.
Actually, Lanyer has been summoned to the island to treat a flamboyant native leader (Ben Halley Jr.) for an unmentionable blood disease. And to keep tabs on Halley for our side, as represented by secret agent Michael Canavan. And, if need be, to kill him.
All this is news to Lanyer. If "Haut Gout" were an action flick, he would put up some resistance and we would have an interesting story. As it is a Study in Corruption, Lanyer goes along with the whole deal and ends up dead.
Why does he go along with it?
That's where the play's interest must lie, if it's to have any interest. The title, "Haut Gout," refers to the special tastiness of meat when it's just slightly tainted. Does this mean that nostalgia-for-the-swamp is what really lured this "compas sionate" doctor to the land of voodoo? Maybe, but it's not in the play. All we see is a wimp going to the dogs. If there's a subtext where the doctor is asking to be degraded, Lanyer and his director, Jody McAuliffe, haven't found it.
The most energetic character in the play is the native leader, who combines cruelty, gross appetites and a fancy way of speaking. Halley has great fun with this rascal, but if we are to see him as hypnotizing Lanyer with his utter awfulness, we don't.
Rather than being a story of a half-guilty man in fatal pursuit of his shadow self, "Haut Gout" is the story of a simpleton fallen among thieves. Yet Lanyer supposedly runs with a hip crowd back home. Drinks before dinner in Scarsdale includes epigrams. "God invented marriage in order to restore our faith in divine retribution," chuckles Lanyer's hospital chief, John-David Keller. He also suggests that our hero, who used to have a cocaine habit, is another Dorian Gray.
Very interesting, but it doesn't happen on stage. And for a play that puts so much store on bons mots , there's an odd, stilted quality when someone says something ordinary. "We can't take the children out of school at such an early age," says Anni Long as Lanyer's wife. Meaning, until they're bigger.
Long and Canavan seem depressed by their lines, but Keller makes something rather good of the cynical hospital chief, and Sally Kemp almost seems to have the key to the play as his dizzy, prescient wife. Adrienne Morgan represents voodoo medicine, and her silence is strong.
The physical production nicely complements the play. Cliff Faulkner's set is icy and postmodern at the start, but it can't stand up to Paulie Jenkins' lights--it starts to soften and scorch, like the hero's soul. Here we see what "Haut Gout" is up to. But it's not in the writing.
Performances at 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, run Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8:30 p.m.; Sundays, 8 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30. Ends Oct. 25. Tickets: $19-$24; (714) 957-4033.