'Prayer for My Family'

The folks onstage in Craig Lucas' "Prayer for My Enemy" are all struggling to make sense of themselves and their roles in a mystifying universe.

The folks onstage in Craig Lucas’ “Prayer for My Enemy” are all struggling to make sense of themselves and their roles in a mystifying universe. The play touches on relationships, family, sexuality, addictions, war, resentment and forgiveness, nature and technology, the anger and violence that ripple through contemporary life — you name it. But this attention-deficit therapy session is all jangled, raw nerves, never pausing long enough on any subject to settle on a lucid theme or establish a discernible point of view. Despite Bartlett Sher’s customarily classy staging and a topnotch cast, most audiences will find themselves as unmoored as the characters.

Sher first staged the play in August last year at Seattle’s Intiman Theater, where he is artistic director and Lucas is an associate a.d., and then at Connecticut’s Long Wharf in the fall. But unlike the director and writer’s previous collaboration on “The Light in the Piazza,” which benefited from significant fine-tuning before the show reached New York, there’s little evidence of work having been done on this text.

It’s not that Lucas isn’t reflecting on real issues or even that he hasn’t created potentially intriguing characters. And it’s not as if we don’t know what makes them tick. We get to hear reams of their unspoken thoughts in poorly demarcated “psychic interior” asides that constantly interrupt the dramatic flow. Yet somehow they remain at a distance, and the conflicts that fuel their confusion, sorrow and rage remain mostly opaque.

There is one major difference in the Playwrights Horizons production with respect to the one in Seattle, and that’s the character of Dolores.

This lone, mildly unhinged woman — who wanders on at regular intervals to address the audience about her mother’s deteriorating health, her dissatisfaction with her doctor fiance, her loathing of overcrowded New York and soothing rediscovery of the comfortable familiarity of her more peaceful childhood home — was a somewhat annoying satellite figure whom Lucas took far too long to connect to the principal characters. That dynamic remains unchanged, but in Victoria Clark’s lovely, self-effacingly funny performance, she’s the most emotionally involving figure in the play.

Much as we’ve heard these kinds of rants about the crazy-making realities of Manhattan life before, there’s a touching balance of amusement and sheer terror in Clark’s description of the city as “one long shriek of rage” and of its inhabitants as rats, biting off their own feet and yours in a “big filthy loud dangerous ugly unsanitary uncivil and foul-smelling cage.” Despite her protestations, Dolores is no less ruled by hostility and fear than the people she rails against, providing a sad contradiction steeped in pathos.

Lucas has always had a knack for blending naturalistic observation with poetic grace notes. Dolores describes herself and her mother as being like oak trees in the fall, holding onto their leaves the longest while shivering in the bleak cold. Her words convey the character’s sense of isolation and impending loss with a heart-wrenching directness that’s missing from the equally troubling personal situations depicted in the narrative mainframe.

That part concerns the screwed-up Noone family: high-maintenance bipolar Vietnam vet and reformed alcoholic Austin (Skipp Sudduth); his ineffectual peacekeeper wife Karen (Michele Pawk); their thorny divorced daughter Marianne (Cassie Beck); and son Billy (Jonathan Groff), who enlists to fight in Iraq (the action takes place in 2003 and 2004) in a last bid to win his father’s approval.

Then there’s Billy’s school buddy and secret love, Tad (Zachary Booth), who has his own bumpy history. While the two men continue to dance sheepishly around their mutual attraction for much of the play, Tad gets together with Marianne and they start a family while Billy is in Iraq. (Marianne also has an institutionalized autistic son from her previous marriage, but that nugget of info goes nowhere much.)

There’s no sexual tension and little evidence of real longing between Groff and Booth, which saps this storyline of poignancy. However, it hardly seems the fault of the capable actors that their characters’ emotional damage doesn’t resonate. Groff has no trouble selling bruised sensitivity; Beck tempers Marianne’s perennial disappointment with wit; Sudduth shows the helplessness beneath Austin’s punchy, difficult behavior; and the underused Pawk has some fine, quiet moments as a woman awkwardly smiling through discomfort.

Sher underscores the melancholy mood with Nico Muhly’s pensive music and John McDermott’s silvery set, backed by a rear-wall X-ray of skeletal trees and occasionally canopied by autumnal leaves. But just as the playwright’s central theme remains elusive, so does the production fail to isolate a sustainable dramatic strain or find a consistent tone for its minor-key humor.

The most problematic aspect is the intrusive inner-voice elements, which either create confusion (is he/she saying that to the other characters or to us?) or spell out far too much.

By the time the comatose but suddenly articulate Austin becomes an advocate for fatherly compassion from his hospital bed, many in the audience will be looking at their watches, waiting in vain for answers to at least some of the fragmented work’s many scattershot questions. People are basically unknowable but every life has value? Thanks. It may be the playwright’s intention that the issues raised here are all but impossible to resolve, but it makes this a frustrating “Prayer” without an amen.

Prayer for My Enemy

Playwrights Horizons; 198 seats; $65 top

Production

A Playwrights Horizons presentation of a play in one act by Craig Lucas. Directed by Bartlett Sher.

Creative

Set, John McDermott; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Stephen Strawbridge; original music, Nico Muhly; sound, Scott Lehrer; production stage manager, Lisa Ann Chernoff. Opened Dec. 9, 2008. Reviewed Dec. 4. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Cast

Billy - Jonathan Groff Tad - Zachary Booth Dolores - Victoria Clark Austin - Skipp Sudduth Marianne - Cassie Beck Karen - Michele Pawk

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