The characters of Keith Bunin’s new play The Busy World Is Hushed are highly articulate, educated folk, always quick with a comeback. And I wish that, in staging the opening scene, director Mark Brokaw hadn’t let the comebacks come quite so quickly and casually: If we don’t see what these remarks cost Bunin’s people, his excellent play might be mistaken for a mere verbal caprice, a young writer’s desire to show off his flair for words. However Bunin, as his earlier plays The Credeaux Canvas and The Principality of Sorrow have already demonstrated, has bigger fish to fry than phrasemaking. A play that struggles to fuse, in one taut triangle, a debate on the value of faith in a meaningless world and an anguished exploration of the nature of love, The Busy World Is Hushed ratchets up both a moral stature and an emotional intensity that go well beyond wordplay. That it ultimately doesn’t succeed in attaining this fusion is almost beside the point: At its best, which is a lot of the time, you feel you are in the presence of something very big and not hollow.
One reason the opening scene shouldn’t be played so glibly is that it’s a job interview, in which both parties are, understandably, a little hesitant. Hannah (Jill Clayburgh), an Episcopal minister and biblical scholar, is trying to find out if Brandt (Hamish Linklater), a young writer whose own projects are temporarily stalled, would be a suitable assistant-cum-ghostwriter for her next book, the translation and annotation of a newly discovered Coptic Gospel that is said to predate the four that Christians believe contain the “true” story of Jesus’ life, crucifixion, and ascension. Brandt, who knows nothing of Coptic philology, needs work to distract him from a crisis at home, where his father is undergoing what’s likely to prove a slow, hideous death from a brain tumor that may or may not be shrinkable. And Hannah needs help, it turns out, with a task a little more mundane than bibliology: reconciliation with her errant son, Thomas (Luke MacFarlane), who has been running away from her, and from all forms of stability, since adolescence. Hannah’s husband died, in a mysterious accident that may or may not have been suicide, while she was pregnant with Thomas. Her faith, severely tested by his death, came back with her son’s birth. But Thomas, living up to his name, is a chronic doubter—of God’s existence, Hannah’s honesty, the hope of permanent relationships, and most everything else. While Hannah scrutinizes ancient texts for the truth about her Father in Heaven, Thomas is searching through his biological father’s papers for a more earthly explanation.
Nothing could solve this mother-and-son dualistic tangle, of course, except a miracle, which is what each of them temporarily sees in Brandt. But miracles don’t happen easily nowadays, and strangers who meddle in family matters are more likely to bring the flaming sword that sets up an impassible gulf between people. That becomes the case, painfully, in scenes that flare up with startling passion, which Bunin makes believable without having his characters abdicate their intelligence. Even when the situation feels as though it has been fabricated only to blaze up, like a fire effect in a play, his people sustain their reality because their emotions are so bound up with their ideas.
We see this partly because, however lightly Brokaw lets his actors skate over some passages, they still convey the weightiness of the script. Bunin only brushes in the issues that first-century biblical texts raise about Christian belief, but the brushstrokes are sufficient for Clayburgh to depict, convincingly, a woman who not only lives for her faith but knows the difference between Nag Hammadi and Qumran. MacFarlane may shortchange Thomas’s deep inner troubles, but he brings, along with his good looks, so much brash energy—Bunin has written him one of the most manic entrances of all time—that the role seems too fully embodied to quibble with. Linklater’s Brandt, working small-scale and inwardly, makes an elegant contrast to him.
There’s nothing elegant about Greg Kotis’s Pig Farm, but that ain’t the problem. How did everyone involved fail to notice that this thin, obvious, and painfully repetitive piece was no more than a 10-minute revue sketch, with no substance to justify its production as a full-length play? True, the Roundabout has no real artistic director and no literary manager, but surely somebody there must have noticed from the first read-through that Pig Farm could do nothing onstage except overstay its welcome. Vaguely a parody of Sam Shepard, Kotis’s overextended skit is actually an unconscious tribute to the kind of “meaningful” rural-life drama that had its heyday in the 1910s and ’20s but, like rural life itself, has long since disappeared. As in Kotis’s Urinetown, the spoof contains a veiled right-wing message: The musical’s final gibe was that crooked capitalist tyranny took better care of natural resources than liberal generosity; in Pig Farm, the villain is a crooked EPA inspector (!) who wants the farm for himself, a figure less like the sinister invasive forces in Shepard’s dramas than like the fast-talkin’ city slickers in the “Toby plays” that used to be a standard feature of Midwestern county fairs. Even as a joke, Pig Farm is baseless: Kotis is so remote from his subject that he doesn’t even know pig meat has to be cured before it can become bacon. John Rando’s cast does what it can to get laughs from the unsustainable material, and Denis O’Hare’s gift for deadpan physical comedy is always a delight. But producing this play was the most swinish act involved.