Can the often-intertwined refuges of love and faith provide insulated safe places in lives touched by suffering? That’s one of the many big philosophical and theological questions asked in Keith Bunin’s imperfect but stimulating new play, “The Busy World Is Hushed,” a ruminative triangular drama staged with subtly measured strokes by Mark Brokaw as the final work in Playwrights Horizons’ 35th season. The production also provides a complex, compassionate role for Jill Clayburgh in her third consecutive New York stage appearance this season after a long absence.
Despite wearing the clerical collar of an Episcopalian minister, Hannah in many ways echoes Clayburgh’s most iconic role of the late 1970s, in “An Unmarried Woman.” In both the Paul Mazursky film and in Bunin’s three-character play, she’s independent-minded and idiosyncratic, intelligent and more than a little spiky, warm and loving but also difficult and at times unreadable.
Contracted to publish her interpretation of a recently discovered Coptic Gospel translation dating from A.D. 50 or 60, Hannah is a religious scholar who’s a more disciplined thinker than she is an essayist, prompting her to hire writer Brandt (Hamish Linklater) to assist. He’s an introspective young gay man whose questioning nature qualifies him more for the job than anything on his resume.
The troubled author of a Christina Rossetti biography whose chief preoccupation is his terminally ill father, Brandt could hardly be further on the outer margins of contemporary gay culture. He has archived away any thought of being in a relationship or even sexually active. Yet Hannah sees him as a potential anchor for her unmoored son Thomas (Luke Macfarlane), thrusting them together by encouraging Brandt to overcome his hesitation and act upon the evident attraction between them.
Two beautifully judged moments gently illuminate this part of the action: the look of instant understanding that passes across Clayburgh’s face when Hannah realizes something has passed between Brandt and Thomas; and Linklater’s aggressive response when Hannah misreads Brandt, revealing the deep feelings for Thomas he’s fighting to suppress.
With about one in five new plays now pointedly referencing the gay-marriage debate, Bunin’s handling of the unexpected way in which a representative of religious officialdom acknowledges the possibility of same-sex love and then intervenes to make it happen is uncommonly graceful.
But exposure of that intervention, interpreted by Thomas as self-serving manipulation, serves to nudge the friction between mother and son into full-blown confrontation, wherein lies the play’s chief weakness.
Much as Bunin airs the reasons for intractable Thomas’ antagonism toward his mother — stemming largely from his suspicion that Hannah embraced faith as an escape from dealing with his father’s suicide while she was pregnant — the unresolvable conflict feels forced and insufficiently motivated.
There’s an elegant balance in the lives of both male characters being overshadowed by the loss or impending loss of their fathers — one remote and mysterious, the other cherished and respected — while Hannah’s is defined by an almighty father in many ways no less elusive.
Prone to prolonged disappearances and to frequently switching colleges, fields of study and professions, Thomas is rendered unstable by the past and by his mother’s refusal to help him make sense of it. But more than Hannah’s shortcomings, it’s the play’s lack of insightfulness into this aspect that makes Thomas’ anger seem fraudulent and Macfarlane’s slightly self-conscious perf the least affecting.
Bunin is a sensitive writer, however, and the talky play remains dramatically and emotionally absorbing, its smart, contemplative dialogue flowing naturally from the articulate characters. Brokaw’s unfussy direction shows a heartening trust in what’s by no means an easy-access text and in the actors, while Allen Moyer’s single set — a cluttered apartment library dominated by stacks of unshelved books and stained-glass windows depicting biblical scenes — provides a suitable setting that’s studious and solemn but at the same time messily inhabited.
Replacing Christine Lahti, who dropped out due to family commitments, Clayburgh brings wisdom and quiet humor to her role while refusing to define Hannah’s questionable behavior and convictions as right or wrong, sound or unsound. “She’s a salesman who’s her own best customer,” observes Thomas of his mother. Bunin might have ordained Hannah, but he declines to make her a saint, and Clayburgh’s embrace of the woman’s uncertainties makes her all the more human.
But the production’s strongest performance is Linklater’s as the outsider pulled into the rocky relationship of a mother and son while attempting to maintain his own fragile equilibrium.
The play is primarily about voices crying out, trying to make sense of the pain of life while searching for a home, whether it’s in God or in love. It offers no firm answers, but in the extreme naturalism of Linklater’s soulful Brandt, it makes the struggle poignant and real.