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Three Changes

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Three Changes
Maura Tierney, Dylan McDermott, and Scott Cohen.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Today's theatre trivia question: How long does it take two men to change from gay lovers to father and son? Answer: If it's happening within Nicky Silver's new play at Playwrights Horizons, Three Changes, two hours and fifteen minutes.

Please note that this is not an isolated incredulity - it's merely the crowning example in an evening that thrives on them. It is also not technically a spoiler, but rather an inevitability in the school of "You've had this date with me from the beginning": Once you've identified as your subject the creation of one family unit within the corruption of another, there are really only so many places to go.

Silver doesn't miss a trick in tracking the dissolution of one man and the ascension of another. The former is a financier named Nate (Dylan McDermott), while the latter is his older brother, Hal (Scott Cohen), an actor and writer on the skids who's hoping that Nate will welcome him back into the familial fold after a 20-year separation. And, over the course of a frantic few months in New York City, that's exactly what happens, if not quite in the way either expects.

The impudence of religion, the importance of children, and the impotence of non-visionaries in an increasingly competitive world are among the paths Silver toes. At first, at any rate. Before long, he's discarded them in favor of a more standardized exploration, a contemporary urban retrofit of Sam Shepard's True West demonstrating how blurred the lines already are between the born-again Hal, who's seen the highest highs and lowest lows of living, and Nate, who takes his blessings for granted.

Silver addresses the men's contrasting evolutions in a series of breezy, vignette-styled scenes, which the characters frequently interrupt with time-skipping monologues directed to the audience. This keeps the running time reasonable for a mini epic, and helps Silver arrive at his final destination with a minimum of fuss.

But what's the point in writing a play with a minimum of fuss? Supporting details are typically at least as interesting as the story they elucidate. But the broad strokes Silver employs never connect into a recognizable depiction of personal or fraternal disharmony in an already volatile existence; in fact, they never connect into anything more than the impression that Silver wanted to reap the rewards of Big Ideas while risking as little - and challenging as few people - as possible along the way.

So what you get instead are a series of loose variations on an already floppy theme. Many of these revolve around Nate's yearning wife Laurel (Maura Tierney), who's never recovered emotionally from her three miscarriages, and has lost whatever tenuous grip she might have once had on the meaning of her marriage and waking up in the morning. But only outsiders can complete the picture of the brothers' breakdown and build-up, and they're represented by Nate's young bit on the side, a cosmetics salesgirl named Steffi (Aya Cash), and Hal's 19-year-old runaway boyfriend Gordon (Brian J. Smith).

The indecipherable siblings, the slut, the boy-toy, and the good woman caught in the middle... Yes, they're all here. And none of them offers a fresh insight into, well, anything, despite director Wilson Milam's heroic efforts to focus the show as a memory play in the making. But with so many foregone conclusions, most of which climax in Hal's changing from Gordon's daddy into Gordon's daddy, the overall effect is one of deconstructing a memory you never experienced in the first place.

Only Tierney finds an appropriately modulated sense of reality, coming across as the most rational person onstage (as well it should be, since she's the only tasked with playing nonsymbolic emotions), and giving you a strong sense of how Laurel is drifting blindly through her life. Cash is highly amusing in the short snatches of time she earns as the straw about to break Nate's back, but her role is so extractable that her fluency with sensual wisecracks radiates strictly as an immense lost opportunity. Smith is awful as the spoiled, smug thug, so determined to show how Gordon subsists as all things to all people that he never establishes the necessary baseline for normalcy.

McDermott and Cohen are tacitly believable as brothers, but spend more time negotiating the obligatory twists of plot than they do establishing them as human beings. McDermott's stonily successful Ned is too overstuffed to be destined for anything other than a calculated takedown, and Cohen accentuates Hal's cruelty at the expense of the compassion Silver is desperate to prove rests just beneath his surface.

That notion, like so many here, would be more convincing if it didn't feel like yet another ploy for eliciting generic revelations about both the dark underbelly and the beating heart of the American non-nuclear family. Silver's lesson seems to be that knowing whom to trust, whether blood relatives or perfect strangers, is one of the greatest challenges we face. But harder still is figuring out why we should trust that Silver has our, or anyone's, best interests in mind with a play that, like its central figures, is still searching for its own true identity.


Three Changes
Through October 3
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral