It was easy enough to fall in love with the gallows humor Dixie style that Beth Henley employed so uncommonly in “Crimes of the Heart,” her first major play to appear on Broadway. In it, the characters are conceived and portrayed so that we can laugh aloud hearing that a horse had been killed by lightning; that a wife has shot her husband because she didn’t like his looks; and at the admission of an impetuous young lawyer that he became “fond” of his client ever since she sold him a pound cake at a bazaar. The play was a huge success. It was nominated for a 1981 Tony Award, and subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Despite a succession of dark comedies, including “The Wake of Jamie Foster” and “The Miss Firecracker Contest,” Henley’s gift for installing mercurial mayhem into the lives of neurotically defined Southerners apparently ran its course. I’m a fan of her macabre sense of humor and so her plays have remained among my favorites, including her most recent, “Ridiculous Fraud” (seen at the McCarter Theater in May, 2006) in which she skewers with relish three Southern brothers: a perfect bookend to “Crimes of the Heart.”
It should have been rewarding to see the decidedly character-driven “Crimes” return with a fine cast and with film and Broadway star Kathleen Turner making her New York directorial debut. This production, based on the 2007 Williamstown Theatre Festival production, however, falters in ways that are as baffling as they are disappointing.
It is difficult to see any particular distinction about Turner’s otherwise acceptable direction. It is easier to see that some of the principal actors aren’t able to effectively plumb the reality of their roles. The wackiness of Henley’s characters should take care of itself without having actors underline them. This is strange since the cast, with just one exception, has remained intact since Williamstown and should have, by now, found a reality in the Henley-land.
There is some hope early in the play that this ensemble has captured the ferocious personalities that make up the Mcgrath sisters’ idiosyncratic household. This occurs as Chick, a neighboring gossipy cousin, arrives to dispense the latest horrific news about the murder charge leveled against her cousin, Babe, all the while pulling up a pair of pantyhose with equally determined gusto. Chick is played by the wonderful Jessica Stone, who captures not only the crassness of her role as extended family instigator and trouble-maker but also proves to be the best at conveying the unforced but also unhinged tone that should permeate Henley’s play.
Sadly in this production, it is in all the subtle and poignant aspects of life among these un-stereotypical Mississippi maidens that the play loses its heart and its momentum. There is no reunion like a Southern family’s reunion. That we know. And Henley sparks this odd sisterly gathering with more examples of dysfunctional behavior than you would find in most rehab clinics. If nothing else, it should be fun. It isn’t and why is a puzzler. How could so many deliciously nutty people with so many kooky doings afoot turn out to be so boring?
Jennifer Dundas has the role of the dowdy Lenny, who is turning 30 on this very day. She singlehandedly maintains the family home and is the sole caregiver to their aging grandfather, now hospitalized. Dundas projects a curiously unnerving and mousy demeanor. She layers it with a mannered nervousness and a potato mouth delivery that grows increasingly tiresome. There is some respite from her affectations later in the play, when she discovers that she is no longer going to remain a victim of shrunken ovaries, apparently the cause of her almost resigned state of spinsterhood.
Sara Paulson bitches a bit and flirts a little, but does little to make the prodigal Meg, a failed singer and a model of insincerity, more than a bundle of pent-up frustrations. She earns a laugh describing the slicing pains in her chest she always got after reading Lenny’s letters. For all the empathy we might feel for Babe, Lily Rabe plays the part as if she had more screws loose than even Henley could have envisioned. With her long blonde hair and dressed in a silly girlish frock (what was costume designer David Murin thinking?) Babe gives the impression of a mentally-challenged Alice in Wonderland.
The men, on the other hand, are the best in creating flesh and blood characters. Patch Darragh is superb as Meg’s former beau, and Chandler Williams is genuinely funny as Barnette Lloyd, Babe’s defense lawyer, who is not only infatuated with her but also has a personal vendetta against her husband. The two-story McGrath home in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, has been nicely evoked by an extra roomy well-stocked kitchen area and a day bed placed to the side. It’s a shame that the expert lighting by Natasha Katz hits it mark more frequently than do many of the players. HH
“Crimes of the Heart,” through Sunday, April 20, Roundabout Theater Company at the Laura Pels Theater at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater, 111 West 46th Street. $63.75 to $73.75. 212-719-1300.