Near the end of Goodnight Children Everywhere, one character carries a small bundle; a shrill infant's cry pierces the air but does not seem to travel with the "baby." This disconnect is but one small symptom of the credibility problem in Richard Nelson's ostensibly realistic play.
Puttin' some English on it: Kali Rocha and Chris Stafford in Nelson's postwar hotbed
Goodnight Children Everywhere By Richard Nelson Playwrights Horizons 416 West 42nd Street 279-4200
It's England, 1945. Three sisters and a brother are reuniting at home after being split apart during the war. Though they speak of privations, they wear bright, stylish clothes and inhabit a genteel flat. Where are the worn spots, the patches?
Nelson, directing his own work, seems more interested in revealing the scars not visible. The playwright, best known for his broad satiric canvases Two Shakespearean Actors and Some Americans Abroad, is attempting an intimate drama of a family trying to heal itself after the losses Mother and Father both killed and dislocations of war.
What would happen to siblings, he posits, who separate as children and meet as young adults? Would their roles change? Reuniting almost as strangers, might the siblings experience a lessening of the usual sexual taboos? Goodnight Children Everywhere feels like a conceptual working-out of this question, rather than a play drawn from actual life.
As the piece opens, Betty, the oldest sister, Vi, the youngest, and a rather pregnant Ann are all anxiously awaiting their little brother Peter's arrival. Peter, who's grown to a manly 17 during his five years in Canada, is escorted in by Ann's husband Mike, a much older doctor, who's been acting as flirtatious paterfamilias to the whole brood. The siblings hang back, burst forth with hugs and kisses, engage in remembered horseplay. They trade stories of wartime hardship and grief.
Their clumsy, tentative stabs at reconnection, the glossing-over of rivalries, the reconfiguration of the household with an additional male: all these Nelson depicts sensitively. But then he goes off the deep end, as this family group defying any resemblance to 1940s English middle-class life becomes a hotbed of sexuality. When Peter presents sensible Betty with a new blouse, she bares her breasts in the parlor to try it on. When incestuous feelings emerge between two siblings, they are not only expressed but acted upon.
No doubt we are intended to believe the war has wrought these aberrations, but these carryings-on aren't tenable. What's most lacking in the play is a picture of who Mum and Dad really were: some late revelations suggest family fissures but provide little insight. And the play's psychologizing is, well . . . unsubtle. Why, everyone wonders, does Ann slip and call Mike "Father"? Why, indeed?
Yet for all this, Nelson has created some memorable characters, well played by his ensemble. Robin Weigert is touching as Betty, the gawky caretaker struggling with her desires. Kali Rocha's Ann, the unhappy wife, is a study in sweetness unhinged, and Heather Goldenhersh's Vi has a winsome comic presence. The men are likewise ably acted, Mike as kindly with a slimy edge by Jon DeVries and Peter as awkward and bewildered by Chris Stafford. John Rothman and Amy Whitehouse add to the mix as a leering doctor friend and his overeager teenage daughter.
Each player has some fine moments, but they are dancing to a fragmented, often tedious composition with many false notes. Several are maudlin and manipulative, none more so than the title song, a lachrymose wartime lullaby, which the children use as a special signal to remember their departed Mum: "Goodnight children everywhere," the Victrola plays, "Mummy thinks of you tonight."