Wednesday, January 12, 2011

THEATER: Blood from a Stone

Photo/Monique Carboni
Apparently director Scott Elliott and the New Group take their idioms very seriously: as the title of Tommy Nohilly's Blood from a Stone suggests, they have taken a flinty, sedentary play and, with the aid of some top-notch actors, wrung blood from it. However, whether or not that makes a good production all depends on how much you like blood, because these characters hate each other. And unlike similarly dysfunctional modern plays by Tracy Letts or Lucy Thurber, which offer some slim hopes and glimmers of change, Nohilly's only got two-and-a-half hours of blood.

It's no wonder that Travis (Ethan Hawke) hates coming back to his family's Connecticut home, where his mother, Margaret (Ann Dowd), can't wait to scream about all the new ways in which his penny-pinching, rage-a-holic father, Bill (Gordon Clapp), has messed up, or about how she's had to hide her valuables from his brother, Matt (Thomas Guiry), in case he starts gambling again. And she, who constantly hands Travis cash, is the loving one! Don't be fooled by her good will, the sisterly love of Sarah (Natasha Lyonne), who scrapes by with double-shifts while pregnant with her second kid, or the rekindled flames between Travis and his now-married and next-door neighbor Yvette (an invigorated Daphne Rubin-Vega): these are merely brief vignettes, introduced in the middle of the first act purely to show us how nice things can be before Nohilly begins systematically taking it all away. (It's telling that neither character is mentioned again; they're figments of a different, happier play.)

You see, Blood from a Stone also likes its metaphors: a ceiling tile collapses early in the first act, bringing with it a deluge of rainwater. It carries with it the point that this shattered family is deserving of this broken home: those who do not fix their leaks, physical or mental, are doomed to collapse. And that's exactly what happens for the final hour of this bulldozingly bleak play: it all comes tumbling down. Bill, reasonably provoked by his delinquent son, Matt, crashes his car into the patio and goes into an accusatory rage; Travis, who has been a low-key fly on the wall up until now, defends his brother, lashing out with his own pent-up rage, a downward climax that, after getting even more heated, ends the first act.

Elliot, who never seems to have the slightest bit of difficulty naturally staging action -- particularly fights -- does an admirable job with all of this, and it's admittedly exciting to watch these people unhinge. But there's a futility to his and the actors' work. Bill re-enters at the start of Act II bearing a peace-offering for Travis: ice cream. (Never mind that it's three in the morning.) Clapp finds a childish calm to Bill, a nocturnal counterpart to the constant rage and menace with which he's spoken about everything else, but it goes unexplained, and Bill is never held accountable (or questioned) about his earlier rage, in the same way that his relationship with another woman is more-or-less accepted, as is his racism against all non-white people. You could add a dozen other traits and quirks, and Clapp would nail them all, but it wouldn't mean anything: Nohilly remains so tight-lipped and close-set in his scripting that all we're supposed to get is that Bill, a former soldier, has never really recovered, and is therefore an on-again-off-again rage machine, or, to be less kind, a stage device.

This lack of significance has a domino effect on the rest of the actors: Dowd seems more stubborn than strong to remain in the house with him, Guiry has to play his character as plain stupid (instead of just baby-faced), and Hawke's final act seems implausible. None of it means anything: it's just blood, and what Nohilly really needs is a pound of flesh.

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