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In the Daylight

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

In the Daylight
Joe Urla, Concetta Tomei, and Sharon Maguire.
Photo by Gili Getz.

Of the countless creations that begin, in word or in spirit, with the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night,” very few live up to the standards set by its most famously pulpy invoker, Edward Bulwer-Lytton: undulating sentences that slither endlessly and say nothing, banal imagery rendered in exacting detail, and gleeful terribleness masquerading as thoughtfully descriptive prose. If not much else may be said about In the Daylight, Tony Glazer’s new one-dimensional thriller at the McGinn-Cazale Theatre, at least it does Bulwer-Lytton proud.

Every second of Glazer’s lusciously overwrought work seems to hearken back to Bulwer-Lytton’s own Victorian days, with multiple repressions (of feelings, of memories) corroding the all-conquering family unit, the rapid-fire embracing of revelations too outlandish to merely be unbelievable, and parading about a sense of duty to be fiercely entertaining at the expense of dramatic truth and even basic common sense. There’s no way this could even be considered a passable play, but Glazer and his director, John Gould Rubin, ensure you’re having some kind of a good time even as you’re having a bad one.

That’s true of even the preshow sequence, when you first get to examine how this bizarre world looks and sounds. The spine-drenching echoes (designed by Elizabeth Rhodes) of a light drizzle gradually becoming an unholy downpour, thunder and all. The flashes of lightning (part of Thom Weaver's lighting plot) that illuminate the whole stage in eerily cold illumination followed by even more unsettling shadows. And, for that matter, Christopher Barreca’s set itself: a scrupulously white living room most notable for its near-complete lack of furniture and walls, staircases, and doors that seep away from the floor at uncomfortable-looking 15-degree angles.

The people that finally appear are hardly more natural. A young(ish) man named Martin Feingold (Joseph Urla), who walks, blinks, and guzzles alcohol as though he is (or should be) looking over his shoulder. His sister, Jessica (Sharon Maguire), who conducts her every action with the detached disdain of a woman undergoing shock therapy at a sewage treatment plant. Their mother, Elizabeth (Concetta Tomei), isn’t much better, with her dagger-drawing personality and barking resentment for everything around her. The patriarch, William (Jay Patterson), never talks to anyone, but sucks down booze constantly, and never needs to open doors by hand. And who is this clingy Southern woman (Ashley Austin Morris) claiming her name is Charlotte and that she met Martin on a plane, but whose accent and hairdo are improbably broader than the Texas panhandle?

It doesn’t take long to get some of these questions answered. Dad died six years ago, and Martin left immediately afterward (hmm...) to write a best-selling book about the death. Now he’s returned to his parents’ New Jersey estate because he thinks mom is about to die as well. It’s clear from the animosity simmering beneath each line of dialogue that one or more of them might not necessarily think this a bad thing. (“Mom doesn’t have a heart, she has a Lexus,” Martin observes.) But as the trio’s impromptu reunion trudges on, alliances and secrets are revealed, and they somehow all have Martin and the Feingold reputation squarely in their crosshairs.

Exactly why that is requires the last part of the first act and all of the second to explain, and is thus far too elaborate to spoil here. It’s also too absurd: Glazer is obviously going the route Tracy Letts took in August: Osage County of injecting every imaginable sleazy horror he can into his dysfunctional family, but he does it with considerably less style, grace, and honesty. By the time you understand everything about how and why these people behave as they do, you’ve long since stopped caring. There aren’t enough layers of motivation; the characters’ backgrounds alternate between clichéd (ooh, alcoholic!), sketchy (ooh, abusive!), and dubious (ooh entrepreneurial!); and too many of the lines, especially for Martin, are little more than cheap laugh-getters. (Example: “Single is fast becoming the new immigrant.”)

True, the performances and Rubin’s direction don’t help. Except for Morris’s initial scenes, when she brings an unexpected lilt to the turgid music of Glazer’s dialogue, the actors all bear a mien lodged somewhere between “asylum inmate” and “hungry zombie.” Their work is, however, in keeping with Rubin’s distractingly abstract and distant staging, which in its commitment to emotional uninvolvement and blocking that either directly contradicts or simply doesn’t support the dialogue, tends to look like a thesis project for the John Doyle Directing School. This makes it difficult, if not outright impossible, for Rubin to echo the closest thing Glazer has to an underlying (if overmade and unoriginal) point: apparently normal, upper-crust families can sometimes be the weirdest and most harrowing. There’s nothing normal about these people.

So does In the Daylight prove anything useful? Perhaps two things. One, that “watchable” is not an immediate synonym for “brilliant.” (Most regular theatregoers probably knew that one.) And two, that the smartest artists of all stripes eschew Bulwer-Lyttonisms whenever possible. Yes, they’re immediately immersive, but they’re at best shallowly so because they’re a conspicuous substitute for actual art. After all, when you start with a night that’s nothing more than dark and stormy, how can any playwright, director, or actor ever successfully reach the dawn?


In the Daylight
Through October 11
McGinn/Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway at West 76th Street
Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes, with intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Vital Theatre