Too much going on in 'Tranced'

Who’s trancing whom? There are so many weighty issues and hidden agendas at work in “Tranced,” you may end up feeling like its playwright, Bob Clyman, is going too far out of his way to pull one over on his audience.

Take the character of Dr. Phillip Malaad. He’s a Washington-based psychiatrist who specializes in hypnosis, a supposedly lapsed Muslim with a vague Middle Eastern upbringing, whose loose interpretation of doctor-patient confidentiality doesn’t keep him from sharing information about an explosive case with a newspaper reporter.

She’s Beth Rosenthal, who claims to be Unitarian despite her Jewish name, and whose sense of journalistic ethics is questionable. Based solely on tape recordings of Malaad’s highly controlled sessions with a new patient — and with a little help from a personal contact she knows in the State Department — Beth starts building a big story around the girl, a college student from Africa.

Or take Azmera. Depending on whether she’s in her “right mind” or speaking from one of Malaad’s “tranced” states, she’s either a compassionate activist dedicated to preserving the way of life in her native (fictional) Guyamba, or a political radical who will do anything to stop her government’s latest dam project.

With any number of ulterior motives at play between the characters, “Tranced” offers a lot to chew on — too much, really. Director Susan Reid’s Aurora Theatre production is ultimately exasperating, another admirable misfire from the company this season, as it seems to be making an effort to broaden its scope a bit.

The operative word is admirable. Sure, last fall’s “Boom” had problems, but it launched an ongoing program in Aurora’s smaller studio space of producing more experimental fare. “Buy My House ... Please!” (on the main stage in November) was worse, but there’s something to be said for the group’s good intentions in taking the chance on a new comedy by a local playwright.

And so it goes with “Tranced.” Reid drops the ball in adequately distinguishing past and present, between scenes from reality and those being replayed on tape.

In a carefully layered performance, Naima Carter Russell creates a dynamic figure as Azmera. Kudos, as well, to Chad Martin (as Beth’s Pentagon insider) for cutting a real person out of a role that could’ve been just another cardboard bureaucratic.

Still, the director does the show no favors in her other casting choices. Maurice Ralston typically adopts a monotonous cadence to his voice that is even more tedious in the context of a dispassionate psychotherapist with an accent, like Malaad. For her part, there’s a whining quality about Cara Mantella’s Beth that never quite suits such a presumably aggressive go-getter.

Clyman’s drama gives the two of them a whole lot to talk about, but they don’t make it any easier for us to hear or absorb all they’re saying.

Theater review:

Grade: C+

Through Feb. 7. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Feb. 3. $14-$30. Aurora Theatre, 128 Pike St., Lawrenceville. 678-226-2222, .

Bottom line: An alternately heavy and heavy-handed drama.