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A CurtainUp Review
Beautiful Child

Do you remember that day? ---Nan
What day?---Harry
My funeral---Nan
What ?---Harry
My funeral---Nan
Of course---Harry
I should've worn black. I should've had pallbearers, not bridesmaids ---Nan
It was hot and very sunny. You were very beautiful---Harry

It's been four years since Nicky Silver's last play at the Vineyard Theatre which has been a nurturing incubator for his work. Beautiful Child which is again being produced at the Vineyard is a dark, unsettling play which also happens to be enormously entertaining. The first act glitters with Silvers' unique brand of aimless seeming chatter laced with hilarious non sequiturs. The second act plunges us into darker, murkier waters with a puzzle of an ending that will either lead to animated post mortems about Silver's meaning or accusations of copping out.

As in his 1993 Pterodactyls, the playwright's premise is once again that of an adult son's return to his parents. However, while the current returning son, the mid-thirtyish Isaac, is the "child" of the title and the catalyst for the drama, the lens is now trained on his parents.

Silver's basic intent, as stated in the Vineyard's newsletter, is to explore the question: "How do you continue to love someone who falls outside your moral code?" And, yes, that means yet another look beneath the apple-pie normalcy of the American suburban family -- but not to worry.

Silver may be yet another literary oil driller seeking to extract laughs and serious drama from the well that has gushed forth an unending stream of dysfunctional family stories. The thing is that he pushes the envelope much further. His laughs aren't just punch lines, but sharp and surprising passageways to his main theme and the subtext bubbling beneath its surface. His stylistic juggling abilities are amazing. In Beautiful Child he segues from absurdist comic scenes to having the actors step outside the story to address the audience, from realistic to dreamlike interchanges and from straightforward storytelling to biblical fable.

I'm loathe to spoil the play's impact by going into too many plot specifics. Suffice it to say that Nan (Penny Fuller) and Harry (George Grizzard), the owners of Richard Hoover's well-appointed suburban home with its tranquil view of a woodsy garden, are unhappily undivorced, apparently so from the outset of their marriage. Infidelity, which is just the tip of the marital iceberg, is an immediately spelled out problem since our first view of Harry has him in the arms of Delia, his secretary (Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros).

Nan and Harry seem to have a good if not terribly close relationship with their son and only child, Isaac (Steven Pasquale) who teaches art in an elementary school in the city. His arrival turns out to be more than a visit for lunch, but a plea for help because of difficulties resulting from a love affair. Since they know and have accepted his being gay this is a much more explosive revelation, one which challenges the moral values and comfortable suburban life that that have kept them together. (If you want the details spelled out, go to the small print in the yellow box at the very end of the review; if you don't, skip it).

Beautiful Child could be a blood relative of several Edward Albee plays. The battle scenes between Nan and Harry rival those of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf's Martha and George. The regular appearances of the Harry's oddball secretary Delia brings to mind the troubled neighbors of Delicate Balance. The appearances of Isaac's long-ago therapist Dr. Elizabeth Hilton and the mother of one of Isaac's students (both played by Kaitlin Hopkins) evoke memories of the boy and girl in The Play About the Baby. Most of all there's the issue of the conditional versus unconditional love to trigger memories of The Goat.

All this is not to say that Silver is quite the master of enigmatic story telling that Albee is but he does have his own voice. Even at the most intense moments, you can expect an outrageously inappropriate yet telling comment from a character clearly blind to what's really going on. For example, when Isaac's plea for Nan and Harry's support turns into what Isaac views as a trial at which they are the judges, the whacky Delia interjects "Ooo! Can I be the stenographer?" and Dr. Hilton declares "Parents, Judges. potato, potahto." It's the hairpin turns from absurdist humor to bitter reality and enigmatic symbolism that generates the play's tension and make it entertaining and disturbing enough to stick in your mind.

Terry Kinney has seen to it that the varied elements of the script are firmly knit into a well constructed and paced whole. And you couldn't ask for better actors for the many-facted roles.

Penny Fuller, who seems to embody suburban chic, is an acting lesson in mood shifts -- deliciously bitchy in her opening monologue, bitingly bitter during a devastating fight with Harry, and, finally a woman consumed by grief and guilt who's aged before our eyes.

George Grizzard's Harry makes you understand why he won a Tony for Delicate Balance. He too ages visibly as he grapples with his past, his possible culpability, parental love and social responsibility (he is, after all, a lawyer). Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros is a terrifically ditzy Delia. Stephen Pasquale doesn't get a chance to show off his fine singing voice as he did in A Man of No Importance and Spitfire Grill , but he gives a sensitive reading of a man who sees the world with an artist's clear eyes but is somewhat less clear-eyed about the moral trust placed in a teacher. Kaitlin Hopkins handles both her parts with assurance and flair.

Richard Hoover's move-in scenic decor sets up expectations for a modern drawing room comedy. Anyone familiar with Silver's work will recognize this as a signal to expect something quite different. The same is true of Michael Krass's costumes. Penny Fuller starts out in a vibrant creamsicle colored outfit (not too many women her age could look gorgeous in bright orange!) which gives way to more somberly muted beige.

The play's second act ends on such an unfinished and bewildering note that it's likely to have you cry cop-out. Yet Silver asks questions so well that you become engaged in supplying your own answers and meaning to the flawed finale. Here are just a few of these unanswered questions and ideas likely to whirl around in your head after you've left the theater:

1. If we're meant to see parallels between Silver's Harry and Isaac and the biblical Abraham and Isaac why do you think Silver ignored the fact that God layed his hand on Abraham's shoulder? Did Silver's Abraham-Isaac scene strike you as an upbeat note of symbolic salvation or as the expression of a much darker view of a world in which God no longer looks over our shoulders?

2. Is the therapist a stand-in for everyone in society who is blinded to the needs of troubled children?

3. Is Victor's mother a real person or just a dream symbol?

4. Is Silver blaming the parents and health care professionals for failing to help children deal with their anti-social impulses? 5. Blindness is a permeating metaphor. Do you think the enactment of that metaphor is real? Real or not, does it strike you as believable or a failure to give the play a credible, meaningful ending?

6. Are people who don't seem to love themselves or each other, really capable of unconditional love -- or likely to win our sympathy?

Isaac's big love affair is with an eight-year-old in his art class. Sweet and preppy as he appears to be, he sees nothing wrong in this, but apparently there's been a complaint lodged against him which led him to resign and seek shelter with his parents.

Written by Nicky Silver
Directed by Terry Kinney
Cast: George Grizzard, Penny Fuller, Steven Pasquale, Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, Kaitlin Hopkins.
Set Design: Richard Hoover
Costume Design: Michael Krass
Lighting Design: David Lander
Original Music &Sound Design: Obadiah Eaves
Running time: 2 hours with an intermission
Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15 St 212-353-0303
From 2/06/04 to 3/28/04; opening 2/24/04.
Performances Tues-Fri at 8; Sat at 3 and 8: Sun at 3.
Tickets $50.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 2/21 press performance

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