For those of you who have already seen the play, how did you like it?
August 28, 2006 Edition > Section: Arts and Letters > Printer-Friendly Version
BY HELEN SHAW
August 28, 2006
|A D V E R T I S E M E N T|
|A D V E R T I S E M E N T|
In the shorthand of modern comedy, a single attribute signals the villain. Is it a twirling handlebar mustache? A black cowboy hat pulled low? Nope — it's religious faith. The moment a character clasps his hands and bows his head over his dinner, you know you've got the bad guy pegged.In Keith Reddin's "Brutality of Fact," a bubbly '90s grouser about the many ways families lie to themselves and to each other, Jehovah's Witnesses receive the requisite sneering. It may, in fact, be deserved — proselytizing folks do have their risible qualities. But in a play that tries to rethink American archetypes, it's sad how easily prayer becomes the abbreviation for blinkered escapism, which then somehow translates to evil.
The family at the center of Mr. Reddin's black comedy has some communication issues. At a lunch with her estranged sister Jackie (Amy Da Luz), Maggie (Donna Robinson) discovers that one of her other sisters has died recently (whoops!), another rarely visits from Guam, and that she herself has been reported dead for years. (Finally: a family that could actually use a Christmas newsletter.) Jackie, hiding her hostility under a perky Midwestern bob, admits to inventing Maggie's fictional demise to sanitize the family history — somewhat understandable, since Maggie likes boys, booze, and hurling bottles when she's angry.
Now that she has risen from the dead, Maggie provides a sane, if self-destructive perspective on her remaining kin. Mother Val (Joy Franz), settling into a light dementia, has moved in with the increasingly religious Jackie, ducking her cant in exchange for a free room. Jackie herself has a daughter who doesn't understand her and a Jehovah's Witness fiancé (Marshall Correro) who keeps her on an ever-shortening leash. Will the sisters buck their twin addictions, Jehovah and the juice, respectively? Or will the "opiate of the masses" prove to have a stronger pull than, say, actual opiates?
Of the social issues, Mr. Reddin succeeds best in conjuring up the demon rum: He strikes it right, both from Maggie's impatience with the touchy-feely language of Alcoholics Anonymous and with her desperate need for it. But Mr. Reddin shows his own taste for cliché. Val, angry, bewildered, and surprisingly unsentimental, needs a snappy comeback for every occasion, but Mr. Reddin just doesn't always have one available. After her daughter exults over "finding Jesus," Val exclaims "I didn't know he was lost." Yikes. Even the laziest of the late-night comics wouldn't touch that old chestnut.
Luckily for Mr. Reddin, and the steady direction of Stephanie Yankwitt, most of the cast keeps even the saggiest zingers aloft. Ms. Da Luz doesn't really find much beyond a vibrating tension, but Ms. Franz plays expertly on every string in her repertoire. Secondary roles, like the lovely lesbian (Bronwen Coleman) trying to pick up Maggie, or Jackie's ex (D.H. Johnson), dodge the caricatures the play tries to draw for them. And dream sequences, while rather visually unspectacular, at least pull from the best character actors in the cast.
Ms. Yankwitt excels at making her actors appear comfortable, and the carefully choreographed stage set, designed by Joe Powell, shifts location seamlessly around the unhurried acting. Unfortunately, the cyclone that should be at the center, Maggie, is more like a teapot-size drizzle. Mr. Reddin writes her as boundlessly charismatic, yet prickly — slapping people away just as she charms them. Ms. Robinson underplays dangerously as someone reluctant to give up her addiction because it is a crutch for her vibrant personality.
At the end of the night, "Brutality of Fact"wants to be like a sitcom, with real issues of hearth and church crammed into a yuk-filled half-hour (the actual two-hour running time feels quite long by comparison). As with the rhythms of television, though, the play won't let the complexities register. In the tussle for our attention, Mr. Reddin's easy laughs always trump his bitterer truths.
Until September 10 (259 W. 30th St., between Seventh and Eighth avenues, 212-868-4444).