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As late as 2010, New Yorkers wishing to end their marriage had to show cause—proving cruelty, abandonment, or adultery. New York held out longest against no-fault divorce, but in the 1950s nearly all states demanded either a compelling reason or a lengthy separation. Those wishing to speed the process back then could, like the quartet of men at the center of Matt Charman’s Regrets at Manhattan Theatre Club, take a dreary holiday in Nevada. As soon as they’d proved residency—a six-week procedure—they could instantly obtain a legal split.
Few American writers would dare to set dramas in iconically British locales, but Charman, a U.K. playwright, supplies a quintessentially American landscape—several ramshackle shacks, run by a tart-tongued landlady (Adriane Lenox), in the desert outside Reno. Charman also takes on a fraught and iconic moment in the nation’s history, a time of red scares and HUAC investigations.
Into this world Charman inserts several least happy fellas: Ben (Brian Hutchison), a self-contained veteran and former schoolteacher; Gerald (Lucas Caleb Rooney), a boorish store detective; and Alvin (Richard Topol), a maudlin pet store owner. Ben has already completed his residency requirement; Gerald and Alvin are biding time (with cards, booze, and clarinet practice) until they can untie the knot. “It’s like a middle-aged kindergarten,” says Alvin. Later arrivals include Caleb (Ansel Elgort), a baby-faced naïf, and Chrissie (Alexis Bledel), a local girl and sometime prostitute. When the other men learn that Caleb is fleeing something more perilous than a broken heart, their scant courage is tested.
Charman has ample compassion for his characters—no cruelty or abandonment here—particularly the men forced to strip away the lies of their past lives. Ben, rather too forthrightly, calls the camp the “most honest place on earth. There’s no more running when you reach this point.” Director Carolyn Cantor serves the piece well, as she’s skilled in coaxing truthful moments from any amount of speechifying, of which Charman supplies a fair amount. He has a sure hand with structure, perhaps too sure, as he sometimes sacrifices both historical accuracy and psychological acuity for the sake of theatrical expedience.
These compromises become most apparent in the play’s denouement, a scene as well-intentioned as it is unlikely. But perhaps that’s the point of the play, further proof that entanglements—whether marital, political, or dramatic—are tricky things to resolve.