First in the Magic Theater’s second annual “Hot House” trilogy of rotating-rep new plays, John Belluso’s “The Rules of Charity” is a drama whose parts form an uneven whole. But most of those parts are strong enough to sustain interest over the evening’s two hours. Tragicomic tale of a wheelchair-bound man’s forced dependency on those who view him as a burden sports some vivid character writing and dynamics, though both drift toward the one-dimensional in spots.
A wheelchair user since age 13, Belluso usually builds his plays around the experience of disability, and “Rules” is no exception. Its central figure is Monty (Warren David Keith), a middle-aged amateur scholar with cerebral palsy whose interest in the written word is easy to understand, given the escape it affords from dismal life circumstances. His wife having died of cancer long ago, he lives in a rundown tenement apartment with grown daughter Loretta (Arwen Anderson); they barely get by on his Social Security benefits.
Loretta has chosen to stay home and take care of her physically incapable father, rather than put him in a state-run home. Yet she resents the obligation — treating him with cold hostility. Monty’s self-taught intellectual interests are useless to her, and his only other outlets draw her open scorn.
One is a tendency to get drunk; another is a surprisingly passionate relationship with younger drinking buddy LH (Andrew Hurteau), the building’s janitor. Their more-than-friendship is a secret ill-kept from Loretta, who doesn’t object so much as question dad’s late-blooming homosexuality. Was his marriage to the mother she barely remembers a lie?
His furtive love for LH is mutual, yet the latter shows signs of shame and withdrawal. One day he thrusts upon Monty a visit from Paz (Sally Clawson), a film student who also happens to be their rich absentee landlord’s daughter.
A strident fount of undergraduate political correctness, Paz is nonetheless clueless, using terms like “misshapen” and “deformed” in Monty’s presence. She wants to interview him for her video project about the ethics and consequences of charity. He reluctantly agrees (after being offered cash). But she only wants him to confirm her stereotypical notions of the disabled as self-loathing “victims.”
LH’s insistence on this unpleasant exchange is explained when he breaks with Monty in the worst possible way, crying, “I don’t want to be a faggot and I don’t want to take care of a cripple.” Instead, he’s creating a new heterosexual life for himself — one that gives spoiled Paz a “working-class hero” as husband, while he gets her wealth and privilege in return.
Meanwhile, Loretta has been drawn into romance with Horace (Gabriel Marin), a genial if hard-drinking Stanley Kowalski type who really does love her. Still, after years of taking care of others, she wants to be taken care of, and he’s far too hapless for that job.
After intermission, a year has passed. Loretta is now pregnant, Horace is unemployed and they’re all unhappily subsisting on Monty’s SSI checks. Paz and LH have become born-again Christians. They resurface only to offer money for Monty’s journals, which LH — using the Bible now to keep his closet door wedged shut — knows contain “evil lies” about the past he’s disowned.
All frustrations explode in a tense climactic dinner that leads, perhaps too rotely, to tragic violence.
So much of the play is fresh and surprising that its flaws stick out sorely: Notably the whole character of Paz, who despite Clawson’s game perf is too shrill a cartoon of small-mindedness to mesh with the other, more nuanced figures. Same goes for post-intermission LH, who’s suddenly reduced to a walking hate crime.
Another major problem, albeit production’s rather than the script’s, is that Anderson emphasizes Loretta’s rigid-with-anger mode at the expense of the vulnerability and yearning she’s meant to express elsewhere.
Chris Smith’s bare-bones staging (sharing a corrugated-steel set unit with the other “Hot House” plays) makes some unfocused blocking choices. It also might better have evoked the apartment’s purported seediness rather than littering the stage with TV monitors used for little beyond some pretentious intertitles (e.g., “The Baby, or Testimony of Dark Things”). But he’s guided the male cast members, at least, to very sharp perfs, with particularly fine work from Marin in a role that might easily have been more slobbish than sympathetic.