It's good, in theory, for writers to stretch their talents in new directions. But Nicky Silver stretches himself into a big fat knot with his new play at the Vineyard Theater. An ungainly jumble that strays among several modes -- from hysterical domestic comedy to arty, reflective monologues to a grandiosely tragic conclusion -- the play ultimately has little to say about its discomfiting subject, a man's professed love for an 8-year-old boy.

It’s good, in theory, for writers to stretch their talents in new directions. But Nicky Silver stretches himself into a big fat knot with his new play at the Vineyard Theater. An ungainly jumble that strays among several modes — from hysterical domestic comedy to arty, reflective monologues to a grandiosely tragic conclusion — the play ultimately has little to say about its discomfiting subject, a man’s professed love for an 8-year-old boy.

Richard Hoover’s placid set, representing a genteelly upper-class living room in an East Coast suburb, could easily do duty for a revival of Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance”: The decanters of booze take a prominent place among the sturdily elegant furnishings. And as the play progresses, it seems clear that Silver does indeed seem to be aping — or, to be more charitable, paying tribute to — the senior playwright.

The sudden arrival of the thirtysomething Isaac (Steven Pasquale) at his parents’ home, where his request to be taken in is met with incomprehension, sets up an echo of “Delicate Balance.” And when his parents learn the reason for his flight from job and apartment in the city, as he coolly confesses his romantic attachment to one of his grade-school students, suggestions of Albee’s tragicomedy about a transgressive love, “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?,” come to the fore.

But Silver doesn’t entirely have the courage of these convictions. The long first scene of the play, preceding Isaac’s arrival, is typical Silver: a manic, joke-laden contretemps between Isaac’s father, Harry (George Grizzard), and his desperately needy mistress, Delia (Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros). “You made promises! You told me we’d run away!” she wails. Says he: “I meant for lunch.”

When Harry’s wife, Nan (Penny Fuller), arrives home, the fur really begins to fly, as she assails him with accusations of infidelity and general insults to his manhood.

Intermittently the play returns to this shrill comic mode, in between tortured discussions of Isaac’s problem, or how his parents’ loveless marriage might have warped his emotional development. But director Terry Kinney never finds a way to reconcile the conflicting tones: No sooner has a wisecrack been tossed off than we hear a massive thunderclap from Obadiah Eaves’ portentous sound design, lest we forget the story’s darker dimensions.

The play is at least consistent in its inconsistency: It’s as confused in structure as it is in mood. Nan and Harry interrupt their arguments from time to time to appeal directly to the audience. In addition to these random asides, characters address the audience in longer soliloquies (largely of tangential significance), and interact confusingly with figures from the past or their imagination. It’s as if Silver is unable to find a way to seriously approach his troubling central subject, and simply keeps inventing ways to avoid it.

The actors fare better than might be expected as they gingerly make their way across the play’s rough-hewn surfaces. Gersten-Vassilaros has the meatiest comic role as the discarded mistress, who implausibly plants herself in the middle of this domestic disaster. Her breathless, teary confessions and emotional nakedness are a welcome distraction; more than an onlooker, Delia is really a refugee from another play, and the actress sensibly plays her that way.

The talented Grizzard and Fuller are more at home in the play’s anguished moments, hollow though they often are, than in the snarling George-and-Martha confrontations.

But the handsome, likable Pasquale can do little to humanize his cipher of a character, who, despite his obvious intelligence, seems dreamily unaware of the potential moral and legal ramifications of his acts. In the play’s overwrought conclusion he cries, “You don’t understand! I love him!” — as if the invocation of the word provided instant absolution. That is, unfortunately, as close as the play comes to seriously thinking about its sensational subject.

Beautiful Child

Vineyard Theater; 125 seats; $50 top

Production

A Vineyard Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Nicky Silver. Directed by Terry Kinney.

Creative

Set, Richard Hoover; costumes, Michael Krass; lighting, David Lander; music and sound, Obadiah Eaves; production stage manager, Rachel J. Perlman. Opened Feb. 24, 2004. Reviewed Feb. 21. Running time: 1 HOUR, 45 MIN.

Cast

Isaac - Steven Pasquale Delia - Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros Harry - George Grizzard Nan - Penny Fuller Dr. Elizabeth Hilton/Victor's Mother - Kaitlin Hopkins
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