There is plenty of talented flesh and blood onstage, but this ponderous stage transcription of Michael Cunningham’s 1995 novel is nevertheless dry as a bone. Coming in at an unconscionable 3½ hours, it plods through about that many generations of a Greek-American family saga without bringing a single one of its many characters to memorable life.
Many of the flaws in Peter Gaitens’ adaptation of Cunningham’s book can be traced to the source material itself. The novel, by the author of the Pulitzer Prize winner “The Hours,” has many admirers — “a transcendent testament to the power of human endurance,” burbled Publishers Weekly — but its prose, to these ears, is grossly overwrought and self-important. At one point a billiard ball is sent “spinning into the corner pocket like blameless competence being born.” Please. It lacks the artful rigor of Cunningham’s vastly superior writing in “The Hours,” and sometimes resembles what one imagines Jackie Collins might sound like if she were to attend the Iowa Writers Workshop.
Of course, the stage adaptation naturally trims away most of these narrative excesses, but it can do nothing with the bones of the story itself, a variation on the sprawling family saga that has been a popular staple of middlebrow literature — and thence TV miniseries — for eons. In place of the sunny endings and sudsy romances that fill the pages of the traditional entries in the genre, Cunningham provides snapshots of suburban misery and anomie in the age of AIDS. But the author has merely replaced comforting cliches of fulfillment with equally familiar cliches of dysfunction.
The disorders that plague the family of Constantine Stassos (James Sierros), the patriarch of this unhappy clan from New Jersey, are taken from the standard checklist of the latter days of the 20th century; the cast of characters who help to rescue the second generation of the Stassos family from the constrictions of the upwardly-mobile-white-middle-class life might have come from a P.C. writers’ manual.
Constantine’s uptight and unfulfilled wife, Mary (Cherry Jones), becomes a pill-popping kleptomaniac. Constantine himself has a mildly incestuous relationship with his daughter, Susan (Jessica Hecht), and takes up with his secretary. Susan flees into an unhappy marriage much like her mother’s. Sensitive little Billy, abused by his temperamental dad, turns out to be gay, natch. And the family’s third child, Zoe, coming of age in the Age of Aquarius, gets lost in a haze of drugs and sex, has a child out of wedlock (the father’s black) and contracts AIDS. Her best friend is a tart-tongued but good-hearted drag queen named Cassandra, who becomes godmother to Zoe’s son Jamal. (Are there any humorless drag queens devoid of charitable instincts, one wonders?)
Gaitens has not done a lot of pruning, to borrow a gardening motif that gets a symbolic workout here. A few episodes are condensed or expanded, but much of the dialogue is lifted verbatim from the novel. And since it sounded scripted in the book, it seems rather more so onstage. The play unfolds in brief scenes spanning at least three decades, with about half the cast doubling roles. Paul Tazewell’s costumes act as graceful period indicators, while Christine Jones’ striking set — an abstraction of a bilevel house set in front of a haunting backdrop of bare tree trunks — provides an evocative background for scenes stretching up and down the Eastern seaboard. But there’s no disguising that the episodic narrative would be better served by movie or TV treatment, which would at least provide the illusion of realism to distract us from the flat characters and the predictable paths to disillusionment and, occasionally, redemption that mark their lives. (You can bet the frosty and sheltered Mary will be softened by bonding with sassy Cassandra.)
The actors sometimes engage us despite the material’s weaknesses. Jones is essentially miscast as a prim, emotionally constipated 1950s housewife — the actress’s earthy intelligence and luminous presence shine through her series of crisply tailored and neatly accessorized outfits (in which she looks smashing). And yet she communicates the seismic dislocations of Mary’s experience with an affecting clarity and quiet fervor. Hecht’s trademark off-kilter line readings bring some endearing fillips of humor, even if they are not entirely in keeping with her character’s persona. Sierros’ fine performance humanizes the despotic Constantine, to the point that the scene in which his son Will (played by Gaitens) lashes out at him, just before his commitment ceremony with his boyfriend, is excruciating.
This miscalculated scene is an expansion of a rather different set piece in the novel, and it might be Gaitens’ attempt to provide some dramatic punctuation for an evening that mostly just glides from one development to another with little variation.
Director Doug Hughes mostly seems to be marking time; certainly there is no cohesive acting style apparent — and it’s also hard not to notice that this assortment of players never remotely resembles an actual family. The wide span of the novel also requires most of the actors to play little kids at one point or another — an unfailingly grisly tactic that provides yet another reason to lament this wearying evening of theater.