Performing Arts

Zoetic Stage goes ‘Fifty Shades’ one better with a whip-smart ‘Trust’

Niki Fridh teaches Nicholas Richberg that ‘love’ hurts in Zoetic Stage’s ‘Trust.’
Niki Fridh teaches Nicholas Richberg that ‘love’ hurts in Zoetic Stage’s ‘Trust.’ Justin Namon

Fifty Shades of Grey may have left most critics feeling tepid, though the box office frenzy it aroused has the R-rated movie on track to earn half a billion at the box office soon.

But one thing about E.L. James’ 2011 tale of control-freak billionaire Christian Grey and innocent college grad Anastasia Steele is indisputable: Because of Fifty Shades, millions know more about the sexually kinky world of dominants and submissives than they ever would have imagined.

So it’s a safe bet that Zoetic Stage’s production of the Paul Weitz play Trust, which opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater, is going to be seen by audiences far more plugged into its dominant-submissive plot thread than New York theatergoers were when the dark comedy premiered Off-Broadway in 2010.

“I had no idea the movie would be coming out just before we did this,” says Stuart Meltzer, Zoetic’s artistic director and a triple nominee going into South Florida’s 39th annual Carbonell Awards on March 30. “I had never read Fifty Shades of Grey. I didn’t know what all the hubbub was about.”

Instead, Meltzer says he was drawn to the script by Weitz — the guy who directed American Pie, co-directed (with brother Chris Weitz) and got an Oscar nomination for co-adapting Nick Hornby’s novel About a Boy, and is one of the writers on NBC’s About a Boy TV series because of the depth and danger roiling beneath the surface of Trust.

“We put so much happiness into earning money, but when people have it and don’t have that at stake any more, what do they do?” Meltzer asks. “People can learn that happiness can come from within, not from gadgets and baubles and glitter.”

The man looking for meaning in Trust is Harry (Nicholas Richberg), who made his money the dot-com way and now doesn’t know what to do with himself. His marriage to his depressed wife Aleeza (Gretchen Porro) is crumbling, so he seeks out the services of a dominatrix whose whips-and-handcuffs moniker is Mistress Carol. Turns out, her real name is Prudence (Niki Fridh), and she’s someone Harry once knew. She also turns out to have a smart, unreliable, possibly sociopathic boyfriend named Morton (Alex Alvarez).

How the characters mix and mingle and change each other is at the heart of Trust.

Porro, who like Fridh and Alvarez is making her Zoetic Stage debut, says some of Weitz’s observations feel particularly resonant.

“I see this as a comment on my generation. Things are handed to people a lot. And what kind of person does that produce?” she says. “Paul Weitz knows these people. He understands where they’re coming from. Their problems are little, and at the same time, they don’t feel anything.”

Fridh says she did some online research about the world of dominants and submissives, but that Trust is about much more.

“The play is also about bad relationships and what money does. … Opposite Harry, Prudence is in control. With Morton, she feels the lack of control. She feels she doesn’t deserve better. She feels trapped,” she says. “Change is so hard for some people. Prudence is constantly being mentally stomped on. It’s a vicious cycle she doesn’t think she can break.”

“Playing this character is the kind of thing I like to do. He’s scary and funny and sexy. The play is a bunch of people behaving badly,” says Alvarez, a Carbonell nominee for his work in New Theatre’s Visiting Hours. “Morton is a guy who had it easy early on. He didn’t have to try hard and thought he’d be successful, but none of that has worked out. … He’s really, really smart, which is an ingenious thing to write into the play. If he were just a con man, he’d be a stock character.”

Richberg, up for a pair of Carbonells (as best actor in a musical for Zoetic’s Assassins and best actor in a play for the Arsht Center-University of Miami production of Peter and the Starcatcher), likes the fact that Harry is not at all the nervous first-time submissive he initially seems to be.

“It’s the ultimate Revenge of the Nerds tale. Harry was probably the computer geek in high school, and Morton was the loud, popular guy,” the actor says. “But Harry has no real friends to speak of. He’s in a cold, distant marriage. He doesn’t know how to connect without controlling people. He ends up being the most ruthless one of all.”

For all the serious truths embedded in Trust, the play is indeed a comedy. And a hot one at that. Richberg describes the rehearsal room as being “a little steamy.” And Alvarez notes that watching the dominant-submissive experience on stage is different from seeing it onscreen in Fifty Shades.

“This is not dull. It’s more dangerous. It’s saucier when it’s in front of you and live,” he says.

If you go

What: ‘Trust’ by Paul Weitz.

Where: Zoetic Stage production in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami.

When: Previews 7:30 p.m. Thursday, opens 7:30 p.m. Friday; regular performances 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday, through March 29 (additional show 3 p.m. March 7).

Cost: $45.

Information: 305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org.

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