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A Lie Of The Mind

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Alessandro Nivola and Marin Ireland.
Photo by Monique Carboni.

Your first view of Ethan Hawke's new production of A Lie of the Mind, which The New Group is presenting at the Acorn Theatre, is of the disjointed space in which it will play. The stage itself seems real enough - chairs, a bed, the usual accouterments. But as Derek McLane's set stretches upward into the flies, it transforms into a proscenium arch and backdrop of stools, desks, dressers, and found objects as diverse as birdhouses and neon beer signs. This universe, Hawke and McLane tell us before the actors have spoken a word, is one of pure, cluttered imagination.

It's difficult to imagine a more appropriate setting for Sam Shepard's play, which easily ranks among his most touching and searing. Though usually noted for plays that dissect the not-always-mythical state of American-male bravado (True West) or exsanguinate the lies within love and lust (Fool for Love), Shepard revealed with this work, which premiered in 1985, a taste for the emotionally epic that rivaled that of Eugene O'Neill. Yet Shepard's own voice, harsh around the edges but resonating with a deep concern for humanity's fate as seen through the eyes of the directionless, was unquestionably his own.

Hawke and his sterling company have had no trouble translating it for their work here. The play isn't quite as expansive now as it was originally; the first production reportedly spanned four hours in three acts, and Hawke's runs a scant two hours and forty-five minutes with but one intermission. (One suspects that The New Group learned its lesson with, or at least is proceeding cautiously as a result of, its four-and-a-half O'Neill flop, Mourning Becomes Electra, last season.) Yet the compression is smooth and intelligent, and the text has no trouble drawing you into its passionate story of uneasy love between members of all sorts of families.

Chief among these is Jake (Alessandro Nivola) and Beth: He's positive he killed her after he assaulted her, believing she'd had an affair with an actor in a play she was doing. She is, to all appearances, very much alive, though barely capable of concrete speech. While in the care of her brother Mike (Frank Whaley), father Baylor (Keith Carradine), and mother Meg (Laurie Metcalf), Beth becomes intrigued by the arrival of an apparent stranger, Frankie (Josh Hamilton), who happens to be Jake's brother.

Karen Young and Maggie Siff.
Photo by Monique Carboni.

Beth hardly knows him, of course, but that's par for the course here. None of them understand each other any better than do the other members of Jake's family, his mother Lorraine (Karen Young) and sister Sally (Maggie Siff). And Jake himself is haunted by the memories of his father, whom he unwittingly helped die drunkenly many years before, but who remains a symbolic and literal (a box containing his ashes resides in the house) overseer as the young man struggles to find sense in the senselessness surrounding him.

Both Shepard and Hawke present that as an uphill battle - it doesn't take long to recognize the set as the cramped storage unit of Jake's mind, as it were - but not an unwinnable one. Nivola, who delicately straddles the worlds of fact and fiction, of sensitivity and brutishness, and of love and hate, is an often mesmerizing and completely believable guide on the path to the personal success the play predicts possible. Though he makes Jack unapologetically masculine in his voice and mannerisms, he also never shirks from revealing the cracks in his façade that identify him as a soul that's been diminished by a lifetime of loss.

The other actors communicate this, too, in myriad ways. Carradine's firm grip on Baylor's edge-of-the-frontier brusqueness leaves just enough room to glimpse the love and devotion he'd rather not show his wife or family. Metcalf, who shone so brightly (but briefly) in Brighton Beach Memoirs earlier this season, is just right as the careworn Meg, who believes - mistakenly - that she's evolved past where hope can transform her. Ireland is superb, modulating as effortlessly between the incomprehensible (yet recognizably wise) Beth and the Beth who can elicit legitimate feelings from others as she did between hatred and forgiveness in her tour-de-force turn last season in Neil LaBute's reasons to be pretty.

Perhaps the most interesting and representative performance, however, comes from Young. She originated Sally back in 1985, and is now bracingly effective as that character's mother. Moving swiftly from rage to adoration to desperation, Young convinces you throughout that Lorraine is a woman who never manages to learn her lessons about anything. When she and Sally truly confront each other for the first time in the play's second half, her eyes glimmer with the terrifying recognition of déjà vu - she was once where Sally is, and isn't much preventing her daughter from going down the same path.

Could you derive the same powerful message by means of a performer who wasn't really there the first time around? Of course. But Young's presence fortifies Shepard's notions of the uneasy eternality of families and the dangers and benefits of the ghosts we can too willingly let into our hearts and minds. Because of this, Jake's quest to set things right at any cost takes on an urgent new dimension with stakes higher than he or we can immediately suspect. With Young and Hawke on hand and doing such compelling work, it's hard to imagine that this A Lie of the Mind could ring any more true.

A Lie Of The Mind
Through March 20
The New Group @ Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street
Running Time: 2 Hours 45 Minutes with one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral