A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Though this is a period associated with the good times of the Camelot era, don't count on this mostly forgotten play to be Inge in an upbeat mood. On the contrary, it's Inge at his grimmest and darkest, and this rare and very fine revival by T.A.C.T. does nothing to soft pedal that darkness.
The play was Inge's attempt to give some explanation for the apparent explosion of "bizarre and irrational killings" that were permeating the atmosphere in American cities. Imagine his reaction to the world wide violence Americans now see the minute they turn on their television sets or internet devices.
The "natural affections" being put to the test involve a mother and son: Sue Barker (Kathryn Erbe) who as a very young single mother was unable to care for her son Donnie (Chris Bert). . .and that orphanage raised son's tendency to act out on his sense of rejection with erruptions of violence.
The well-made play structure quickly and effectively fills us in on Sue's and Donnie's past and present and establishes an aura of foreboding. The cause for that sense of trouble brewing in Sue's happy present — a well-paying job as a Chicago department store buyer with Bernie (Alec Beard), a sexy younger lover sharing her well-appointed apartment — is a holiday visit by Donnie (Chris Bert) whose present situation is decidedly less than happy (He's on leave from a reform school, euphemistically referred to as a work farm, as a result of beating up a woman).
As we meet the other characters it becomes increasingly clear that this isn't going to be a great holiday. The Christmas tree in Sue's apartment more and more seems like an ironic visual metaphor to upend our usual association of Christmas with joy and good will.
I don't quite buy into T.A.C.T.'s claim that Natural Affection deserves a place alongside Inge's best plays. Granted, the 1963 newspaper strike contributed to its short-livited Broadway debut (36 performances). It's too overstuffed with relationship dysfunctions and plot complications. However, the T.A.C.T. production is so well staged and acted that it is indeed well worth seeing. It certainly kept me fully engaged throughout its two hours.
Kathryn Erbe, best known for her long gig as Law & Order's Detective Alexandra Eames, captures all the emotional currents of a woman who's both strong and vulnerable. She lets us see Sue's pride in her climb up a prestigious and difficult career ladder. Yet the way she caters to Bernie although she's the one paying the rent conveys the insecurity and neediness that made her settle for a younger, less successful man. Bernie's lack of enthusiasm about Donnie's holiday visit and the longstanding lack of real communication with her son, sends her the tension she tries not to show from stretching like a taut wire clear across the stage. Her inevitably downbeat final scene with Donnie is truly devastating.
While this is pretty much Erbe's show, director Jenn Thompson has guided Chris Bert to play the emotionally damaged Donnie without any exaggerated bad-boy-bound-to-explode mannerisms. His body language when his mother hugs him is a poignant echo of her own self-controlled attempts to make the Christmas visit work.
Thompson has also steered the other ensemble members to give performances that enable us to sympathize with their basically unsympathetic characters. The uber-macho Bernie is not so much an exploitative leech, as a fairly decent guy who has a hard time dealing with losing the job even though he probably would never have had the sort of success he envisioned.
To round out this somber picture of people with a precarious hold on their self-esteem and the stability of their relationships, we have Vince and Claire Brinkman (Victoria Mack and John Pankow), the hard drinking miserable couple next door. She's the lonely and bored younger wife; he a jaded advertising man shades of Don Draper and his friends in Mad Men. Pankow and Beard, show admirable restraint in a scene hinting at the latent homosexuality.
The production values overall are first rate. John McDermott deserves a special thumbs up for the way he's expanded the Barker apartment's bedroom, living room and kitchen to include the hallway leading to the elevator and the Brinkman apartment entrance. Ditto for Toby Algya's aptly chosen sound design, starting with the dirge-like foreshadowing music during the pitch black opening scene.
New York theater goers are fortunate to have companies like the Mint, Keen and T.A.C.T. who consistently put on splendid productions of plays that have somehow fallen between the cracks. Though the plays they pull out of theatrical trunk aren't always true 14-karat gold, as is the case with Natural Affection, they shed an interesting and absorbing light on their authors' ouevre.