Ann Dowd and Ethan Hawke in Blood From a Stone. Photo by Monique Carboni.
BOTTOM LINE: A new play about a dysfunctional family: it has some funny moments, but it's a heavy piece of theatre. Ethan Hawke and the rest of the cast are quite wonderful.
Family doesn't always come first although it certainly takes center stage in Thomas Nohilly's new play Blood From a Stone. A grittier, less caricatured August Osage County, this family drama makes you feel like a few interventions are in order. It's billed as a dark comedy, and while there are certainly laugh-out-loud moments, the harsh reality of the struggles at hand overpower any gag meant to lighten things up. But committed performances and thoughtful writing make Blood From a Stone a completely engaging experience, even with its faults.
With a three act structure and a clock-in time around two and a half hours, Blood From a Stone gives itself a lengthy tenure to reveal its characters and their conflicts. About a working class family in Connecticut and the adult children who are less than independent, all six characters embrace opportunities to explain their bad choices; they are all guilty of their own wrongdoings without being completely villainous. The result is a rather hero-less unfolding of the subsequent drama. It's hard to loyally take a side, as everyone is responsible for their own poor decisions.
Travis (Ethan Hawke) is the son that got away -- that is, he escaped to New York to forge an adult life. At the time of the play, he is back at his parents' house before he journeys cross country to more or less find himself. His parents Bill (Gordon Clapp) and Margaret (Ann Dowd) live an uncomfortably abusive existence with one another. Emotional lashes have become their method of communicating. Travis is his mother's son, and so through his eyes, Margaret looks like the victim. But as the story unfolds and we see Bill defended by their other son Matt (Thomas Guiry) it's clear that both are at fault. The third child Sarah (Natasha Lyonne) is the most stable, although she seems pretty miserable as a mother with another on the way, who also works full time. And then you have Yvette (Daphne Rubin-Vega) as the family's next door neighbor and Travis's ex-girlfriend. Although informative about Travis's circumstances, her scene could easily pluck right out of the play. Hawke and the rest of the ensemble act the crap out of this story, breathing life into people who are tortured in their own ways.
If I remember correctly, the family's last name is never revealed. At the very least, it isn't highlighted. This attempt to avoid creating an expected unification of the bunch helps the audience recognize them all as separate entities. They help each other as needed (giving money, defending one another, babysitting, even enabling addiction) but they are individuals. This family is not a team. Nohilly's portrait of six imperfect people is ultimately a crystal clear character study of need. At the end of the day, you learn the other one you can rely on is yourself.
Where the play falters is in its overexcited grasp at action. Several potential set-ups are made and the audience actively tries to piece it all together. At intermission, the loud-talker behind me couldn't stop hypothesizing what was wrong with Travis (He's going away to die! It's gotta be tuberculosis!). Turns out nothing's wrong with Travis. In fact, the vast majority of the clues given throughout the play are simply facts that are thrown up in the air and then fall to the ground, never to be spoken of again. Whether this slight-of-hand is meant to actively engage the audience, or whether its just the result of an prolonged narrative, the final payoff isn't quite enough. There are dozens of possibilities to explain the chaos surrounding all of the characters, yet most of our questions remain unanswered. The conflict does come to a head, however, so the play isn't without some resolution. But for as much as we've invested, a little more could stand to be returned.
Blood From a Stone could be a nightmare from a production standpoint, but under Scott Elliott's smart, understated direction and Derek McLane's useful set, there is much to keep your attention. The family's house is falling apart, it's filled to the gills with stuff, and everyone makes himself comfortable within its walls. The reality of these visuals alone enhance this story to new heights of plausibility. That still doesn't make it a breezy show to run each night; shout-out to the crew who has a busy two and a half hours of their own to manage.
If you are seeking a thought-provoking night of new theatre, Blood From a Stone is a safe bet. It leaves its audience with much to consider, and its snapshot into one family's working-class life is poignant, particular and urgent. It also offers some wonderful performances, proving yet again why Hawke is a formidable presence in the off Broadway arena.
(Blood From a Stone plays at The Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, through February 19, 2011. Performances are Mondays at 7PM, Tuesdays at 7PM, Wednesdays at 7PM, Thursdays and Fridays at 8PM, and Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM. Tickets are $61 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212.239.6200. Use discount code BL30 for $43 tickets. For more info visit thenewgroup.org.)