How curious that two new Off-Broadway plays opening within days of each other should both be set at a psychiatric facility. The third play worthy of your attention concerns a young man whose irresponsible behavior begs for a bit of psychiatric involvement. Who ever said that well-adjusted people are the stuff of good drama?
The rich apparently have an expedient way to deal with difficult family members who aren’t exactly insane or dangerous but are generally considered to be emotionally unhinged. Considered just enough of a nuisance and a social liability, they are conveniently sent off to a very expensive private sanatorium where they are given occasional shock treatments and medicated into a zombie like existence. This is what happens to the title character (Kristine Nielsen) in A.R. Gurney’s play, “Crazy Mary,” in which the playwright once again takes issue with the privileged New England gentry. An uneasy visit to the sanatorium by Lydia (Sigourney Weaver), a verifiably sane family member with an agenda, and her morose son, Skip (Michael Esper), becomes the cause of an astonishing change in Mary’s otherwise stupefied state.
Lydia, an overbearing divorcee desperate to offset her depleting financial status, attempts to gain control, as next of kin, of her Cousin Mary’s considerable fortune. Bitchy as she comes across, Lydia is not an evil woman, just unwilling to see Mary’s money simply going to keep the old institution running in the black, under the supervision of a conciliatory resident shrink Jerome (Mitchell Greenberg) and Pearl (Myra Lucretia Taylor), his affable nurse assistant. Jerome is curiously willing to make all kinds of concessions in the prescribed treatment in order to use what happens as source material for a book.
Surprisingly Skip, who expresses no interest in completing his Harvard education, does take an active interest in Mary, although she is twice his age. Mary, in turn, imagines him to be her long lost beau and takes to fluttering around him like a butterfly in heat. If the play teeters between being farcically absurd and socially insightful, it is buoyed by very fine performances under Jim Simpson’s direction. Weaver is perfection defining Lydia’s patrician breeding. However, it is Nielsen, who, despite the implausibility of her transformation, traverses brilliantly between her delightful delusions and her poignant dependence on professional help. This may not be top-drawer Gurney, as is his more recent “Indian Blood” but it is amusing. HH
“Crazy Mary,” through Tuesday, June 26, Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street. $65. 212-279-4200.
‘In a Dark Dark House’
The repressions and recriminations that result from childhood sexual abuse are at the core of the new play by the always provocative playwright Neil LaBute. But it is the repercussions that serve to reconnect two alienated, semi-estranged adult brothers. The first scene takes place on the manicured lawn of a psychiatric facility (as evoked with notable whimsy by designer Beowulf Boritt), where married-with-children lawyer Drew (Ron Livingston) has been sent by court order to undergo extensive rehab for some undisclosed behavioral problems.
Despite a disclosure that his business ethics have been deplorable, Drew appears to be sincere yet a little vague about his real reasons for getting his act together. His brother, Terry (Frederick Weller), has reluctantly responded to his request to visit him there and help him get to the bottom of some deep seated issues, as well as to speak on his behalf to the court. A belligerent, resentful Terry is a war veteran who works at odd jobs. We can see from the way he responds to almost everything that Drew says that he has a low tolerance threshold.
The schism in their relationship apparently is a result, in part, due to Terry’s failure to warn his younger brother about the sexual tendencies of Todd, a man who worked on the farm when they were children. Terry has also never forgiven Drew for not coming to his defense after he was charged with almost killing their father. Their father was a violent man who physically abused Terry. Nevertheless, Terry was taken from their home to serve a sentence.
LaBute’s drama builds up a head of steam as Terry takes it upon himself to hunt down Todd but instead finds Todd’s daughter, Jennifer (Louisa Krause), a sluttish teenager left in charge of her father’s miniature golf club. As expected with a LaBute play, there are plot twists in the wings and some topsy turvy truths that surface. Some of the psychological revelations are foreseeable but they don’t diminish the play’s ability to hold us in its grip. Carolyn Cantor directs with a sly hand that give Weller a lot of leverage to be compulsively unnerving as it does for Livingston to remain irritatingly inscrutable. HH
“In a Dark Dark House,” through Saturday, July 7, Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street. $70. 212-279-4200.
‘Return of the Prodigal’
Many fine vintage plays return again and again while little known gems such as “The Return of the Prodigal” seem to take their time getting produced in New York. Written in 1905 by British playwright St. John Hankin, a lauded contemporary of both Shaw and Granville Barker, “Prodigal” is being produced by the Mint Theater Company. This adventurous group is devoted to unwrapping neglected plays. Despite the century old Gloucester setting, the mores, deportment, and conventions of family life that are at its heart, the play’s voice and themes, are remarkably contemporary. Perhaps this is why the Mint’s artistic director has eschewed traditional Victoriana for a boldly modern look as reflected in designer Clint Ramos’ streamlined mostly cream colored trappings. He is also credited with the elegantly designed fashions. It is also a wonderful idea for the actors to not affect any traces of high-toned British-speak. The excellent cast is certainly peppered by Bank’s exemplary direction.
The plot pivots around the designs of the Faringfords, a socially prominent family whose fortunes have dwindled. They would, nevertheless, like to see their daughter, Stella (Margot White), betrothed to Henry (Bradford Cover), the upstanding and level-headed son of the Jacksons, a neighboring well-to-do family that own and operate a hugely successful wool manufacturing company.
Fated to upset the plans of both families is Eustice (Roderick Hill), Henry’s younger brother, who suddenly arrives back home penniless and bedraggled after being sent away by his parents (Tandy Cronyn and Richard Kline) with a 1,000 pounds with the hopes he will make his own fortune in Australia. A rascal and ne’er-do-well, Eustice feigns poor health, declines to work for a living, romances Stella, and announces that he expects the family to support him. His father is running for local office and cannot afford a scandal should he throw his son out while his mother seems to let everyday distractions delude her.
Eustice appears to be cleverer than the lot except for Stella’s mother the manipulative and humorously witchy Lady Faringford, who delivers the best bon mots: “It’s such a comfort that all the rich people about here are Conservatives.” However right are her instincts regarding Eustice, it becomes them to consider some hard and discomforting compromises in order to insure peace and tranquility among their social order. A super play. HHH
“The Return of the Prodigal,” through Tuesday, July 3, Mint Theater, 311 West 43rd Street. $50. 212-315-0231.