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Blood From a Stone

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Gordon Clapp, Ethan Hawke, and Ann Dowd.
Photo by Monique Carboni.

The things that separate the great stage domestic dramas from the also-rans are scope, sweep, and context. The last is perhaps most important, because it gives you the sense that something is going on outside the walls of a single home, as if proving that what's unfolding inside is too monumental to be an isolated incident. The best plays of the masters of this form—think Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, William Inge—told us more about ourselves and our world than they did about the characters onstage, about whom they spoke volumes. It's this quality, or more precisely the lack of it, that brands Tommy Nohilly's new play Blood From a Stone, which The New Group is presenting at the Acorn Theatre, not as an also-ran, but as a never-has-a-chance.

I spent nearly every second of the play's exhausting running time (two hours and 35 minutes) trying to discern a bigger theme, some concrete meaning, or even a coherent rationale for this play's existence aside from personal catharsis for Nohilly, who has admitted its story is largely autobiographical. A metaphor for the perceived desolation caused by the George W. Bush administration? The corrosive effect financial and emotional poverty has on working-class folks? An indictment of self-absorption so scathing, so satirical that you can't help but mistake its message for its own essential nature? But as with everything in Scott Elliott's tedious production, no explanation clicked. This is nothing more than an excuse to depict angry people getting angry at each other and their angry lives.

But when disconnected from passion, reason, narrative, or in this case all three, such disconnected rage is ugliness for the sake of ugliness—not drama, and not worthwhile. Nohilly's threadbare scenario bears this out. A mother (Ann Dowd) is very close to both her grown sons, Travis (Ethan Hawke) and Matt (Thomas Guiry), but is locked in a hopeless marriage to Bill (Gordon Clapp). Why has their loveless union persisted for decades? Good question, but it's unimportant to Nohilly—for this clan, things have always been that way, and that's justification enough. So we see him promise to fix the roof and not do it, which makes her mad; we see him promise to fix the electric heat and not do it, which makes her madder. She carries on secret phone conversations on her private line (which, for some reason, is installed in the open kitchen, but no matter), which makes him mad. He gets mad because she gets mad, she gets mad in return, they scream, and the adjourn until later, when the process repeats.

Of course this has rubbed off on their children. Travis is an itinerant drug addict–alcoholic–smoker who can't keep a job or a girlfriend, and spends his last few hours at home before pursuing a new (and likely pointless) venture in California sleeping with the next-door neighbor (Daphne Rubin-Vega), whom everyone hates because she and her husband can't control their children and blare their Latin music all night long. Matt's a serial liar who's married with two kids and one more on the way, but prisoner to a gambling addiction that's led him to borrow vast sums of money, from family, loan sharks, and banks (signing his father's name) alike—and, oh yeah, he's already lined up a new fiancée with whom he's planning to live in Mom and Dad's house until his is finalized. Only daughter Sarah (Natasha Lyonne), married and completely out of the house, has a relatively normal life.

There's nothing likeable, or even redeemable, about any of these people, or their behavior toward each other or themselves. In creating characters that do nothing but highlight the depths to which people can willingly sink, Nohilly gives us nothing to grab onto, root for, or sympathize with. Without an Edmund to hope for or a James Tyrone's promise to mourn, without an Amanda to pity or a Laura to love, this play is crushed under the weight of its own self-important bitterness. As a result of the ongoing hysterics of hate, the few climactic moments that should excite us (most of which are confined to five minutes just before intermission) come across only as blocking. Christmas trees being thrown over, windows being punched out bare-handed, and characters engaging in fistfights on steep staircases have no more visceral impact than a CNBC special report on declining pineapple futures.

Rather than nonstop acid spewing, what the evening truly needs is balance—and there's none to be found in either the script or the production. Elliott's tone is abrasive and his pacing indefensible, every pause loaded with more pregnancy than an obstetrician's office, qualities that extend to Jason Lyon's one-note trailer-park lighting. Set designer Derek McLane's broken-down house set is just as utilitarian, and just as unimaginative. The same is true of the actors. Hawke does everything he can to keep Travis (Nohilly's mammoth-sized, authorial stand-in) on point, but unlocks no humanity or purpose in him that might lower him from remoteness to relatability. Dowd and Clapp are superb at playing upset, which is good because they're allowed to play nothing else. Guiry scribes no confusion, regret, or remorse onto his empty-chalkboard role, which would seem to allow potential for each.

Lyonne and Rubin-Vega, however, do make positive impressions as two very different women who won't take no for an answer. Each brings a humor (Rubin-Vega saucy, Lyonne dry) and vivacity to the stage that underscores their characters' belief that life isn't just salvageable, but that it can and should be lived, regardless of obstacles. That they appear only briefly in one scene each is not, one suspects, coincidental. If Nohilly's goal is to depict a family charting its own death because it has nothing better to do, then two characters concerned with denying that cycle only get in the way.

But if Nohilly actually wants to say something rather than just speak loudly, they shouldn't be on the periphery. O'Neill, Williams, and Inge understood that contrasting outsiders of this sort were necessary to fully illuminate the dark interiors of struggling families, and provide a respite from the threat of unremitting awfulness. Nohilly's brushing aside such necessary sources of light while insisting that the blackness of the suburban American soul is its own reward is neither insightful nor successful. It's blood—and heart—that Blood From a Stone needs much, much more.

Blood From a Stone
Through February 19
Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes, with one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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