Tom Donaghy is one lucky playwright. After productions in Providence and Seattle, “Northeast Local,” his family album of snapshots from the edge, is given the kind of New York showcase most playwrights dream about: a cast of first-rank actors in a staging at Lincoln Center Theater led by that company’s resident ace in the hole, Gerald Gutierrez, in his first outing since his revelatory revival last season of “The Heiress.”
The edge, in this case, is the decades since the ’60s, as experienced not, as it is in so many plays of this type, by middle-class kids who mature from the land of “Leave It to Beaver” to drug experimentation and various liberation movements to failed marriages and mid-life crises. Instead, Donaghy’s subject is a couple struggling in the blue-collar segment of the American spectrum, in this case Mickey (Anthony LaPaglia), an Irish welder, and Gina Maria Allegra (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), known as Gi, a vivacious, artistic Italian girl with prematurely silver hair hidden by shoe-polish black coloring.
Well, this blue highway is pretty well traveled too, and “Northeast Local” doesn’t add much to the genre. Once it’s established that Mickey is an alcoholic loser — immediately after an opening seduction scene — and that Gi (pronounced “gee”) is resigned to a life of disappointment, the play has nowhere to go over the course of just over two long-feeling hours.
The passage of time is marked in the first act primarily by birthday celebrations gone wrong; in the second act by the decline of Mickey’s difficult mother (Eileen Heckart) and Gi’s unexpectedly intimate relationship with Jesse (Terry Alexander), a black friend whose dream of selling beignets from his bake shop is dashed by an act of neighborhood violence that nevertheless leads him into Gi’s arms, etc.
This is a quartet of wonderful actors; the performances are heartfelt and untainted by condescension. On her Act 1 entrance, Heckart receives an audience’s loving acclamation; when she reappears near the end of the play as a wispy, if ever feisty, specter of herself, the effect is stunning. But it’s the only jolt the play will offer.
Despite allthese good efforts, I couldn’t help sensing an overriding sanctimony at work. Mickey’s most brutish scenes always seem to end with a drippy monologue about how everything would be different if things had worked out better for him, and Gi goes along with it far too long for someone who has been paying the rent from the beginning, attends to her artistic aspirations and has only a single child to worry about.
The unseen son becomes an unseemly and all too obvious plot device, as well, growing from a boy who dresses up as Harriet Tubman for Halloween to a gay man apparently dying, at play’s end, of AIDS.
Gutierrez’s staging is uncharacteristically listless (further evidence of the play’s weakness: Think of what this director accomplished with Frank Loesser’s inarticulate folk in “The Most Happy Fella”), while the production, designed by John Lee Beatty and lit by Brian MacDevitt, renders it all slightly shabby. The exception is Jane Greenwood’s costumes, which have a way, as always, of revealing these characters’ essential dignity. To be sure, Donaghy gives them that, too. But he hasn’t written a very good play.