Foote's Orphans; Ruhl's Vibrator Play; Lonergan's Starry Messenger

These days in New York, you can get a great deal of play for your money. Both uptown, where the memory of August: Osage County lingers, and downtown, where the talk is all of The Lily's Revenge, the trend now seems to be toward large-scale, sprawling narratives that cover years or hop from story to story, pushing up to and sometimes over the standard three-hour limit. This past week, works by Sarah Ruhl, Kenneth Lonergan, and the late Horton Foote, American playwrights with little else in common, turned up in the large-scale department. All three offer values that made their outsize works worth tackling, though uncertainty with the spacious form has led all three into pitfalls, sometimes pulling their directors and casts after them willy-nilly. Still, their attempts make the theater seem a bigger, bolder place.

Foote's The Orphans' Home Cycle, left in complete but unpolished manuscript form at his death, is a nine-segment reworking, performed in three parts of three acts each, of the long series of full-length plays that he wrote in the 1970s and '80s about the Robedaux family of Harrison, Texas, the fictional town where most of his work is set. Signature Theatre and Hartford Stage are co-producing the whole trilogy, of which Part One is currently in performance here. Subtitled The Story of a Childhood, it narrates the experiences of young Horace Robedaux from his father's death in 1902 through 1910, when, now 18, Horace shakes off the influence of his mother, who has remarried and moved to Houston, and returns to Harrison, a free but rootless young man.

Part One's effect is remarkably bleak. Far from exploiting period nostalgia or sentimentality, Foote's account of Horace's childhood is an epic of negativity, in which expected kindness or decency constantly get withheld. In the first segment, "Roots in a Parched Ground," 10-year-old Horace shuttles between his estranged parents, his learned but alcohol-wrecked father fading fast while his mother's family sneers and plays music; his mother herself dotes only on her new boyfriend and on Horace's sister, Lily Dale. In the second segment, "Convicts," Horace at 12 is clerking in the company store on a desolate plantation owned by a half-mad old miser, and is ultimately cheated out of his meager wages, spoiling his effort to put a tombstone on his nearly forgotten father's grave.

Deep in the art of Texas: Part One of The Orphans' Home Cycle
Gregory Costanzo
Deep in the art of Texas: Part One of The Orphans' Home Cycle

Details

The Orphans' Home Cycle, Part 1
By Horton Foote
Signature Theatre
555 West 42nd Street, 212-244-7529

In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play
By Sarah Ruhl
Lyceum Theatre
149 West 45th Street, 212-239-6200

The Starry Messenger
By Kenneth Lonergan
Acorn Theatre, Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street, 212-279-4200

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In Part One's last segment, "Lily Dale," Horace's effort to reunite with his mother and sister, now living in Houston, is thwarted, and he ends without even a job to return to, since during his Houston visit the small-town store where he clerked has been burnt down. On the train back to Harrison, he learns that even the couple who have taken over the Robedaux's former home are battling alcoholism, as if it came with the property.

In decades past, Foote's longer plays used to infuriate me: They seemed nothing but wall-to-wall recitation of family connections. His new distillation juxtaposes these thick blocks of chatter with the deadly silences of despair and isolation, making the family tree seem less a source of inheritors' pride than a set of mental handgrips to cling to against the void.

Powerful as Foote's material is, it still contains static sections, particularly in the second half of "Convicts," where the expository motor seems to hum without moving anything forward; director Michael Wilson's cast sometimes adds to the hum by simply passing the data along rather than stamping it with any individual character. Many in the large cast do better than that, however, and Foote's legacy to his daughter, Hallie, now includes another of the showy, sharp-tongued roles she seizes with such vigor, as the skinflint plantation owner's nasty, drunken niece.

Nothing so overpowering happens in Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room (Lyceum Theatre), an intelligent, erratic work that means to explore the complexities of female sexuality, and of marriage, but gets trapped in its uncertainties of approach. In 1880s New York, a progressive young doctor (Michael Cerveris) uses a newly invented electrical appliance to relieve sexually frustrated wives, till his own untutored wife (Laura Benanti) horns in on the act. Ruhl's premise could produce anything from stark tragedy to giddy sex farce: What she supplies is a kind of jittery tasting menu that offers little dabs of each possibility. Some passages of her writing offer beauty and even heartfelt wisdom; others are merely inane. The repeated sight gag of the Victorian vibrator grows tiresome, because Ruhl hasn't built the surrounding narrative convincingly enough to give it meaning.

Les Waters's production echoes Ruhl's indecisiveness of tone, never settling clearly in one period or one style. Cerveris, always to be relied on, hews to the 1880s, making the blindered, driven scientist a touchingly real figure. Quincy Tyler Bernstine, as a servant, and Wendy Rich Stetson, as Cerveris's impassive assistant, play with doughty realism; Chandler Williams cannily imbues an artist-patient with a high-flown manner that never veers into excess. Against these performances, Maria Dizzia plays the principal patient in a shrill, contemporary tone straight from SNL, Thomas Jay Ryan makes her husband a brash vaudeville-sketch lout, and poor Benanti, apparently adrift between the two approaches, veers this way and that like a shipwreck victim wondering which way to turn for rescue.

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