Tuesday, October 22, 2013

"Natural Affection" - Powerfully Affecting

By Judd Hollander

The world is ugly. So says Sue Barker (Kathryn Erbe), a buyer for a Chicago department store at both the beginning and end of William Inge's rarely-performed 1962 work Natural Affection. A revival of which is kicking off The Actors Theatre Company's (TACT) 2013-2014 season. The group delivering a stunning production of people adrift and desperately trying to hold their lives together, but who are always just one half step away from falling completely apart.

Sue currently lives with Bernie Slovenk (Alec Beard), a somewhat younger former bartender turned Cadillac salesman who has big dreams of moving up in the business world. Bernie is not yet ready to commit himself to marriage, this despite Sue making no secret of wanting a ring on her finger. Bernie is also a man who likes things the way he likes things and has a short fuse whenever someone tries to upset his ordered lifestyle. As such, he's not particularly happy when Donnie (Chris Bert), Sue's seventeen year old son, who she had when she was a teenager and who's been spending the last several years at a work farm for teenage delinquents comes to stay with them for the Christmas holidays. It turns out Donnie can stay with Sue full time if she's willing to be responsible for him till he comes of age. Feeling the guilt of never being there for Donnie, Sue agrees. Something to which Bernie very reluctantly acquiesces.

Though Bernie attempts to take Donnie under his wing, the young man, who has a ticking time bomb persona is having none of it. Wanting instead to spend as much time as he can with his mother while slowly becoming accustomed to the finer things in life she can give him. The already volatile situation turns from bad to worse when Bernie loses his job even as Donnie's contempt for him continues to rise. Things comes to a head on Christmas Eve, with the three about to go to a party with their alcoholic, aging neighbor Vince (John Pankow) and his twenty year younger trophy wife Claire (Victoria Mack) - Claire being on the make for anything in pants and who has eyes for both Bernie and Donnie - as frustrations, anger, pain, hidden secrets and some grim realizations begin to spill out, leading to an inevitable and devastating explosion.

Natural Affection is a title with a loaded meaning, it referring in this case to the affection a boy has for his mother, a mother has for her son and that a man and woman can have for each other. Yet when that attraction isn't the same on one end of the equation as on the other, it can lead to disaster as Inge perfectly demonstrates here, stunningly deconstructing a series of relationships and stripping away the layers of the various characters to reveal the pain, ugliness and ultimate disgust they carry inside.

Acting is superlative down the line. Erbe is great as Sue, the most shaded character in the piece and the glue attempting to hold her patchwork family together. Desperately trying to find happiness with Bernie, who she dearly needs, while also trying to be the mother she thinks she should be in an attempt to make up for lost time with her son. Yet those around her are unable to live up to her idealized expectations, as is she herself, and Sue is forced to settle for what she wants most of all, though one suspects she will suffer a bit of an identify crisis because of it in the future.

Beard is good as Bernie, a sort of Stanley Kowalski lite. The reference to the Tennessee Williams character is not accidental as Williams and Inge were friends, the latter dropping in a couple of references to Williams in this story. Also like Stanley, Bernie is not above rationalizing his various misdeeds, coming clean in a half-hearted way at points. He's also an old-fashioned man through and through, feeling as though he has to be the king of his castle or if not, have no castle at all.

Bert does nice work with the character of Donnie, giving off the impression of someone quietly creepy, and a personality that is only seconds away from exploding. Donnie also has a somewhat unhealthy attraction toward his mother, wanting desperately to take Bernie's place in the home; his affections toward Sue almost going over the line as he tries to return to the childhood he lost and a future he believes will be perfect as long as his mother is in it.

Pankow is excellent as Vince, who takes the role of good time drunk and spews out venom and hatred, transforming the character into be a sad and lonely old man. Vince may have money, a beautiful wife and a lot of friends, yet he's so desperately afraid of seeing it all slip away that he starts to push those he loves toward the door before they can even think about leaving. Mack is fine as Claire, the tramp trophy wife looking for a good time with anyone but Vince. The role is a bit one note, but Mack is still able to bring some pathos to the character, especially when she recalls why she married Vince in the first place. In a nice touch of irony, Claire is revealed to be someone just as lonely and scared as Vince.

Rounding out the cast are Tobi Aremu as a person Donnie knows from the reformatory and who offers him a chance to make a quick buck - by becoming anything from a drug courier to a contract killer. Aremu also playing one of the various party guests Vince has over to his apartment. There's also Eve Bianco, playing two roles, one of which figures significantly in the play's powerful and completely unexpected conclusion.

Director Jenn Thompson keeps the show moving nicely, allowing the various characters to develop naturally while quietly bringing forth the underlying power of the text. Indeed, every line and scene comes across as having a definite purpose, with nothing presented on stage that feels forced, tired or extraneous.

A top-quality production through and through, thanks to a dedicated cast and creative team, one hopes Natural Affection will not be forgotten again after the play's final performance at TACT.

Natural Affection
Featuring Kathryn Erbe (Sue Barker), Alec Beard (Bernie Slovenk), John Pankow (Vince Brinkman), Victoria Mack (Claire Brinkman), Chris Bert (Donnie Barker), Tobi Aremu (Gil/Party Guest), Eve Bianco (Religious Woman/Party)

Written by William Inge
Set Design: John McDermott
Light Design: M.L. Geiger
Costumes: David Toser
Sound Design: Toby Algya
Publicist: Richard Hillman
Props: Lauren Madden
Fight Direction: Uncle Dave's Fight House
Wig Design: Robert Charles Valance
Casting: Kelly Gillespie
Production Stage Manager: Jack Gianino
Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Burns
Tact General Manager: Christy Ming-Trent
Directed by: Jenn Thompson

Presented by The Actors Company Theatre
Beckett Theatre
Theatre Row Studios
410 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com
Information: www.tactnyc.org

Running Time - Two hours, 10 minutes (including intermission)
Closes: October 26, 2013

No comments: