Tolstoy’s notion that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way is peculiarly borne out in Richard Nelson’s ponderous new drama Rodney’s Wife. Rodney (David Strathairn), an aging drunk of a movie actor, is living in Rome with his family while shooting a spaghetti western. It’s 1962, a period still beholden to ’50s conventions, though radical tremors are starting to register. By the decade’s end, patriarchy will be dealt a severe blow. Rodney won’t have to wait so long.
The story begins when Rodney’s daughter Lee (Jessica Chastain) announces her engagement to Ted (Jesse Pennington). Stepmom Fay (Haviland Morris), a sultry ex-actress and restless wife, is none too happy about the news. What’s bizarre is that Lee seems pretty broken up about it too. Something weird is going on between the two women, though the only one who suspects anything is Rodney’s meddlesome sister Eva (Maryann Plunkett), who divides her time between eulogizing her late husband and coddling her alcoholic brother. The villa’s heavy Bergman-esque atmosphere suggests a shocking sexual secret. Yet Nelson fails to ask himself an important question: Why should we care?
The only thing marginally engaging about these characters, whose manners are laced with passive-aggressive solicitude, stems from the mystery that dares not speak its name. But Fay and Lee’s lesbian relationship comes into focus fairly early, and given that Rodney is sauced pretty much all the time, it doesn’t seem worth waiting to learn how he’ll react when he finds out. In Goodnight Children Everywhere, Nelson set sibling incest within a London family against the traumatic backdrop of the Second World War. The context of Rodney’s Wife is less historically pointed, and Nelson, who unwisely directs his cast to imbue their lines with heavy foreboding, turns the saga into a pretentious soap opera.