“Melodrama should have a useful influence on our manners and morals, because [it] consists of rewarding good actions and punishing bad,” wrote René Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt, the 19th-century French playwright credited with inventing the genre. Perhaps Stephen Belber had an alternate definition in mind when he titled his latest play A Small Melodramatic Story. This four-character work offers neither clear ethical assurances nor much drama—melo or otherwise.
Belber presents the Story of O (Quincy Tyler Bernstein), a thirtysomething widow whose husband has died under peculiar circumstances. Her friend and would-be paramour Keith (Lee Sellars), who happens to work for the National Security Archive, urges her to try and to discover the truth. O prefers not to inquire further, contenting herself with a draining job and Cape Cod potato chips. She changes her mind when she meets Perry (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), Keith’s sparring partner, a brawny, tender police officer. But while freely availing himself of the Freedom of Information Act, Keith also uncovers a disquieting incident involving Perry.
As in his previous plays Tape and McReele, Belber explores how much of the truth can and should be known. In Story, he foregrounds this concern repeatedly, as though he fears the audience might ignore his area of interest. “I believe there’s truth, there’s a truth to things,” insists Perry. “Everything is knowable,” opines Keith. O even describes a sex scene as “He’s inside me like he’s probing for truth.” (Ouch.) As in his earlier works, Belber offers contending versions of the past, encouraging his characters and the audience to resign themselves to ignorance. In the play’s last moments, O speaks of “allowing myself to release the need to . . . to ‘ascertain.’ ”
The desire for truth, Belber suggests, is damaging, and that holds for this play as well. Belber becomes so focused on his theme that he forgets to write much in the way of plot. The characters spend much time in earnest conversation and debate. The action arrives quite late in the play and, though swift and devastating, doesn’t remedy the torpor. The term melodramatic may now be used as a pejorative, but one wishes Belber had studied the genre further, crafting a play that in the words of the marvelous 1890s critic William Archer would aim at “startling, not at convincing, and is little concerned with causes so long as it attains effects.”