For all its slick staging, wonderful set, occasional zingers, and strong cast, Nicky Silver’s new play “Beautiful Child” never really finds its footing, focus, or voice, and as a result, though somewhat entertaining, feels facile and undeveloped.
The play earnestly wants to be provocative as it tells the story of a youngish male teacher who retreats to his family for protection and to hide from the consequences of molesting an eight-year-old male student, only to find that such protection comes at an awful cost. Beyond the plot’s shocking central element, announced by a prolonged silence that seems false and pretentiously theatrical, it’s impossible to know what this play is about. Is it a meditation on the American family? If so, it’s a pallid Albee imitation that offers some of his superficial bite and boozy, bitchy over-indulgence by the characters, but none of the underlying tension and desperation that characterizes the older playwright.
“Beautiful Child” is an allegory about power and misplaced trust in which the father represents everything we want to believe in and rely on, only to be shown that daddy is at best venal and at worst corrupt. Brecht said all that with more human truth than Silver seems capable of mustering.
Silver throws information at us—the mother had a hysterectomy and now doesn’t want to be touched; the father has taken a mistress who hangs around the house refusing to leave and who (speaking of Albee) may or may not be pregnant; the psychiatrist from years ago appears as an acerbic memory—but never makes that information organic to the characters’ interaction. There is rage. There is catharsis. There are some damn funny lines. Yet there really isn’t a play here, and one leaves the theater scratching one’s head wondering what just went on.
That never happens with Albee because each of his plays—for whatever absurdities are introduced including being in love with a goat—has an internal logic that draws the audience into the precise reality of that world.
Silver’s craft by comparison is sloppy. Characters speak directly to the audience but not consistently enough so we know why that commentary exists, and at the climax of the play when we most need to know what the internal lives of these characters are, we get a conventional drawing room play. This stylistic inconsistency leaves the audience at sea and deprived of what we were set up to expect from these characters, and no amount of sudden blackouts or sound effects, for all their inherent gravitas, can compensate for what’s missing from the script.
The solid performances of the five-member cast, however, do manage to keep the evening engaging enough. As the son, Isaac, Steven Pasquale has a charming presence, despite the fact that his character makes no sense. It’s difficult to fathom how Isaac could slip so easily back into the bosom of the family with no acknowledgment of his child molestation. We know Isaac isn’t a sociopath because he has a long monologue in which he reveals that he knows that what love means to him is wrong.
Though Isaac arrives home and pleads for sanctuary in the family, there is nothing in the script that ever says what’s at stake for him if he is denied it. Thus, the bargain that he makes with his family—he’ll be blinded so he can never look at another child again—is patently ridiculous, not because the theatrical device is wrong but because the process that leads the character to that point doesn’t exist.
George Grizzard plays Isaac’s father Harry with aplomb, plumbing what depths there are to the character. Harry is a stock character, the father who is having an affair with his secretary since his wife has turned cold and who metes out judgment as the leader of the family. As likeable as Grizzard is, though, we never discover what motivates him to exact revenge on his son in a manner more consistent with Sophocles and Aeschylus than with the modern family. It’s an interesting abstraction, particularly in these draconian times, but simply left hanging, it’s merely incongruous.
As Isaac’s mother Nan, Penny Fuller is a font of diverting vitriol, but her character, too, lacks a center. Why she agrees to the mutilation of her son is never made clear, as that’s a decision reached offstage. She is haunted by dreams and fears that she knew all along that her son was a child molester but did nothing about it. There might be theater in the exploration of that, but it’s overlooked as well.
Delia, the mistress who won’t leave, is the most antic character of the cast, and as played by Alexandra Gersten Vassilaros is a mass of hyperactive neurosis and amusing as such. But why Harry was ever attracted to her is a mystery, as is what dramatic purpose she serves by hanging around, only to make an exit at the end, realizing that, like Dorothy, happiness may exist in one’s own backyard.
Ultimately, the characters are all so self-involved that they fail to interact with one another in any meaningful or even coherent way, and in the process they leave out the audience too. The play is a closed loop that for all its attempts at breaking the fourth wall never really reaches out. So can anyone be blamed for leaving the theater wondering what they saw or why they bothered?