Words are funny things. Sometimes a stream of them can draw blood, sometimes their absence can be deafening, and sometimes repeating one or two can speak untold volumes. Playwright Nicky Silver makes ample use of each of these possibilities in his new play Beautiful Child, which just opened at the Vineyard Theatre.
Over the course of the play, words destroy lives, savage emotions, and tear relationships apart. But at the end of it all, they also offer the possibility of hope. This does not come without a price, and that price must be unspeakably high throughout in order to keep the drama taut from beginning to end. At that, Silver has succeeded admirably.
But in order to fully explain the essence of that success - and what prevents the play from achieving all of its goals - at least one of the secrets on which Silver has constructed his story must be revealed. (The secret in question occurs very early in the first act; Silver lays all his cards on the table almost immediately.) Those interested in preserving most of this suspense are well advised to skip the next paragraph.
Isaac, a man in his early 30s, arrives at his parents' home with the news that he's fallen in love. Their joy turns quickly into horror when he reveals the object of his affection: one of his students, Brian, who is eight years old. Silver devotes the balance of the play to the examination of bonds between family members, how some choices can rend family ties, and how other choices - horrible though they may be - might restore them.
To tackle this from many different angles, Silver has granted his characters the ability to not only directly address their thoughts to the audience, but occasionally interact with each other while doing so, regardless of their physical presence in the story - sometimes whole characters are formed entirely in other characters' minds. This allows Silver an unusual freedom to examine how the characters' actions might have led to the creation (or prevention) of the problem at hand. Interaction between the real and the unreal even plays a vital role in the story's climax.
But if Silver's setup of the story is masterful, his follow-through never quite delivers on that promise - the structure of the story is meticulously detailed, but other elements of the play's characters feel less fresh. Isaac (Steven Pasquale) is a frustrated artist, and his parents Harry and Nan (George Grizzard and Penny Fuller) are emotionally separate, her never having loved him and him always having loved her, though he's recently found refuge in another woman's arms.
Fairly run-of-the-mill stuff. And as the plot continues twisting, with the complicity of each of the characters continually changing subtly along the way, the impossibility of sympathizing with anyone precludes an effective resolution to the story. The one Silver has concocted offers some sense of completeness - part of his point is that, whatever good is done, a situation like this can't end happily - but little satisfaction. It feels a little too synthetic, even for these characters.
At least Silver has a top-notch cast interpreting his work. Fuller presents a terrific combination of joy and harshness in scaling the heights of her strongest emotions, Grizzard brings a chilling understatement and cold sense of resolve in all of Harry's actions, and Pasquale's bursts of feelings tend to be theatrically explosive. Better still is Kaitlin Hopkins, who plays two roles, both from Isaac and Nan's past. Her "non-presence" in the story gives her range and freedom the other performers lack, and the unique mixture of comedy and deadly serious drama she gets to play makes her the production's real standout. Only Alexandra Gersten Vassilaros as the new object of Harry's affections never really connects; her character is more of a dramatic device than a person, existing primarily as a way for Silver to get the other characters where he needs them.
Terry Kinney has done some admirable work as director here, and he seems to have an innate understanding of the rhythms so vital to Silver's writing. (The revelations of Brian's identity and the characters' imaginary interactions with each other could not have been better brought to life on the stage.) The physical production is also well realized, with a lovely house set by Richard Hoover, effective lighting by David Lander, and decent costumes from Michael Krass.
But what you're most likely to remember are the devastating emotions and plot developments Silver mines from what at first seems an innocuous script; they prove almost enough to redeem the show from its dependence on cliché and become a singularly sober view on familial relations. But while words can (and do) accomplish much here, they can't do quite do enough to take Beautiful Child to the transcendent next level to which it aspires.