Richard Nelson's "Goodnight Children Everywhere" is aboutthe fate of a London family, whose children were sent to Canada and Wales for safety during World War II. Reunited in the spring of 1945 after the death of both their parents, the four siblings have grown into young adulthood, though their unfulfilled childhood longings continue to haunt them in the most unexpected, erotically charged ways. Written in a self-consciously Chekhovian manner, the play studiously refuses to call attention to its larger themes, preferring instead to let the action unfold in as hushed a manner as possible. Nelson's taciturn direction follows suit, with everything in his production proceeding by implication. While there's no denying the subtle intelligence of the work, the dramatic core seems somewhat underdeveloped.

Richard Nelson’s “Goodnight Children Everywhere” is aboutthe fate of a London family, whose children were sent to Canada and Wales for safety during World War II. Reunited in the spring of 1945 after the death of both their parents, the four siblings have grown into young adulthood, though their unfulfilled childhood longings continue to haunt them in the most unexpected, erotically charged ways. Written in a self-consciously Chekhovian manner, the play studiously refuses to call attention to its larger themes, preferring instead to let the action unfold in as hushed a manner as possible. Nelson’s taciturn direction follows suit, with everything in his production proceeding by implication. While there’s no denying the subtle intelligence of the work, the dramatic core seems somewhat underdeveloped.

Betty (Robin Weigert) and her two sisters Ann (Kali Rocha) and Vi (Heather Goldenhersh) can hardly contain their excitement as they wait for the return of their baby brother Peter (Chris Stafford). Though it’s been six years since the women have seen him, none are prepared for the handsome 17-year-old young man who walks through the door.

Of course nothing is the same since the war. Not their city, not their social situation, not even their beloved South London home, which they’ve been forced to subdivide for rental income. Indeed, the sisters themselves, who range in age from 19 to 21, have changed dramatically.

Ann, the middle daughter, has not only married a man old enough to be her father, but is already expecting her first child. Vi, an aspiring actress, has come to enjoy flirting, particularly with men who can launch her career. And Betty, the eldest and without a doubt most serious, has become a nurse in Anne’s physician husband’s surgery team.

Almost immediately the siblings begin sharing their stories about their lives during the war. All of them are trying, in as reasonable a manner as possible, to make sense of the time when they were wrenched from their home, though their tales are conveyed with a child’s sense of mystery and bafflement.

Peter talks about the relatives he stayed with in Alberta, his mind still grappling with his uncle’s inexplicably harsh treatment of him.

Ann tells about the family Vi and she stayed with in Wales. “Why did I have to work?” she wonders. “Was that part of the plan?”

Betty, who had been deemed old enough to stay in London with her mother, recounts the manner of both her parents’ death, which has obviously changed the course of her life. Though only 21, she’s prematurely taken on the role of spinster, while continuing to serve as self-sacrificing mother figure for the rest of her family.

Nelson, whose comedies so often concern Americans living in England or, more recently, the English living in America, is fascinated by characters who have lost their moorings. Here, however, the displacement takes on all the gravity of war, with its demented logic, absurd rationales and irreconcilable losses.

What’s most compelling about the playwright’s handling of this particular family’s traumatic legacy is the way sexuality encodes so much of the psychological damage.

The four siblings resume their relationships as though no time had passed at all. They change in front of each other, invade one another’s privacy, even bathe out in the open. Though their bodies have matured, their libidos remain trapped in a zone of stunted adolescence.

This is captured most startlingly in the incestuous relationship that sparks between Ann and Peter, who are simultaneously intimate childhood friends and grown-up strangers. Separated before puberty, they hardly know how to relate to each other as adults, though their mutual attraction quickly heats up into a torrid affair.

Ann’s husband Mike (John DeVries), who has a penchant for young girls, would rather drink than recognize what’s under his nose. To save face, however, he decides to move his wife to a different flat, though it’s clear that nothing he can do can compensate for the parental deprivation she experienced during the war.

Her hysteria (and Nelson gives it classic psychoanalytic dimensions) is meant to be seen as emblematic of the chaotic post-war age in England.

The playwright goes so far out of his way to avoid didacticism, however, that his writing has a muffled quality. What is meant to be thematically discrete, ends up seeming inchoate, merely sketched.

As sexual as the situation can get (and there’s one overheard bathtub scene involving an unusual amount of splashing that’s quite daring), the overall dramatic treatment remains flaccid, never building to anything more than a tantalizing whisper.

The handsome production features Tom Lynch’s perfectly designed English sitting room, which briefly calls to mind Freud’s house in London, and Susan Hilferty’s historically vivid costumes. Ingalls’ lighting captures in evocative autumnal shades the various parlor-room glows.

Rocha and Stafford handle their difficult brother and sister relationship with dignified aplomb, offering an expansive awareness of their characters’ clutching need for one another.

Also notable are Weigert, as a woman who’s gone straight from adolescence to middle age, and Devries, as a husband who somehow matter-of-factly accepts the shattered reality of life after war.

If only Nelson’s thoughtful play wasn’t so restrained in its theatrical reach , perhaps it wouldn’t seem so over-studied and derivative. As it is, the works seems like an Ingmar Bergman film inspired by Chekhov, but without that ultimate moment of clarifying release.

Goodnight Children Everywhere

(COMEDY-DRAMA; PLAYWRIGHTS HORIZONS; 141 SEATS; $ 37.50 TOP)

Production

NEW YORK A Playwrights Horizon presentation of a play in two acts by Richard Nelson. Directed by Richard Nelson.

Crew

Sets, Thomas Lynch, costumes, Susan Hilferty; lighting, James F. Ingalls; sound, Raymond D. Schilke; production stage manager, Majorie Home. Opened, May 26, 1999. Reviewed, May 22. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MINS.

With

Betty..... Robin Weigert Ann..... Kali Rocha Vi..... Heather Goldenhersh Mike..... Jon DeVries Peter..... Chris Stafford Hugh..... John Rothman Rose..... Amy Whitehouse
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