Played Out?

Illustration by Abby Clawson LowPhoto: Joan Marcus/Courtesy of the Publicity Office

The situation is a comedy gold mine: As highborn Lydia and her son fall on hard times, she becomes the legal guardian of her nutty cousin Mary, who has been cooped up in a fancy sanatorium for three decades—and also happens to be wealthier than God. Now add to the mild avarice and strained family ties the opportunities for the bizarre: Roused from catatonia by their visit, Mary begins living out some fantasy of her youth, forcing the others to play along.

A setup this rich cries out for a writer who salivates at the chance to exploit uncomfortable situations, to drive every character to a laugh-inducing breaking point. How far into weird role-playing will Mary’s addled brain lead them? Just how inappropriate and vaguely anti-Semitic will Lydia’s asides get? What will the shrink do to ensure he gets a good book out of it all? Too bad that Crazy Mary can muster only the bland and the stifled—a Wasp among comedies.

No surprise, then, that this is the latest from A.R. Gurney, that busy chronicler of blue-blood life. He’s worked from some intriguing premises lately, like the story of a woman intimately acquainted with George W. Bush’s youthful indiscretions (Mrs. Farnsworth). Alas, play after play has descended into lefty shrillness or unaffecting dramatics. Here, Gurney reaches the apotheosis of falling short, outdoing himself at not outdoing himself.

Once you latch onto the play’s potential, it’s hard not to fixate on the things that don’t happen. The deluded Mary forces her African-American attendant to take on a funny role (an Irish servant girl) and mistakes Lydia’s son for an old beau, but, inexplicably, spares the others. A song remembered from Mary and Lydia’s youth isn’t obnoxious or offbeat or especially moving, but winsome and useless: Is “You Are My Sunshine” really the best Gurney can do?

Maybe he didn’t intend to write a rip-roaring comedy, you say. But in its current, tepid state, there’s neither laughter nor pathos enough to hold your interest, especially not when Gurney starts making abrupt, arbitrary twists in a plot about Mary’s love life. The directing proves no sharper, as Jim Simpson doesn’t find all that much for his capable cast to do, a group that includes Sigourney Weaver, so natural as preppy Lydia she might have been born in pearls; Kristine Nielsen, a comic one-man band, indefatigably funny as Mary; and Michael Esper, a bright young talent making the most of a shapeless role. It’s hard to fault them for not rescuing such a tame and flavorless play, such a stagebound vodka-and-soda.

A diagram of the areas that Gurney fails to explore would look like a tree ending in countless sawed-off branches; the dramatic arc of In a Dark Dark House, by contrast, looks like the carbon dioxide graph in Al Gore’s slideshow—a long, quiet path ending in abrupt calamity. This variation from the usual bend of a story will seem odd only if you’re new to the world of Neil LaBute.

For the first hour or so of his new play, he plots a darkly compelling tale about thirtysomething Drew (Ron Livingston) and his gruff older brother Terry (Frederick Weller), who visits him in the rehab facility where he landed after getting high and totaling his Porsche. LaBute’s ear for dialogue is as fine-tuned as ever: As Drew reveals that his bad behavior is the result of childhood sexual abuse, Terry mocks him for using inanely juvenile words like “bro” and “dude.” LaBute also does a skillful job of reversing the brothers’ relationship. At different moments, each seems like a pretty good guy, the other a total jerk, making the play a comparative study of two kinds of asshole.

For the first time in years, LaBute seemed to have come up with something forceful to say about guilt, vengeance, and family ties, which would make this play the opposite of last season’s Wrecks, a silly exercise that ended with a twist so ludicrous I wondered if the playwright might secretly be Scooby-Doo. I see now that my suspicion was wrong. In fact, LaBute is Lucy, we are Charlie Brown, and the football is the careful relationship between the brothers that gets flung away in yet another last-minute flurry of revelations.

Where did it come from, this idea that a play needs to massively rewrite itself before it ends, upending the themes and dynamics it’s developed? Not least among the casualties are worthy performances from Livingston, who excels at the light work, if not the heavy lifting; and Weller, who fares best and seems least miscast when the emotional stakes are highest. And Louisa Krause keeps her dignity even while navigating a moment that more and more seems like an automatic cue to feel dread, like a shot of a pet during an action-movie shoot-out: a woman walking onstage in a Neil LaBute play.

Dramatic structure can seem awfully clinical—a grad student’s concern— until you see two plays stumble for lack of it and a third shine because it’s exquisite. In You Can’t Take It With You, now being revived Off–Off Broadway by the tiny T. Schreiber Studio, Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman put every character, every entrance, every line at the service of their marvelous comic machine. Some of the jokes pay off in seconds, others build for hours, and the whole thing has been engineered so ingeniously that even now, at 70, the script has more vitality than just about anything in town.

I’d like to say this is one of those Cinderella moments where the non-Equity upstarts pull off a triumph. Alas, the casting is, to put it with maximum kindness, erratic. The show lands maybe half the laughs, and fares little better with the drama. But when you’re dealing with one of the most perfect comedies ever written, it still makes for a pretty good time.

I’m sure Gurney and LaBute will get more chances to reclaim their receding early form, and I’m glad that some producers are spelunking in libraries for obscure plays to revive. Still there’s something demented about a self-proclaimed theater capital in which audiences can go decades without the chance to see the great works credibly performed. Do most plays strike you as dull, sloppy, unfunny affairs? Part of the explanation lies in the fact that You Can’t Take It With You last had a major New York revival in 1983.

Crazy Mary
By A.R. Gurney. Playwrights Horizons.

In a Dark Dark House
By Neil LaBute. Lucille Lortel Theatre.

You Can’t Take It With You
By George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. T. Schreiber Studio.

Played Out?