It’s hard not to spend the first few minutes of “Stain” with your jaw in your lap. He can’t say that! you think, but he totally can. “He,” in this case, is Arthur, the father of a 15-year-old boy (or is he a 15-year-old man? That’s one of the play’s more interesting questions), who spends the snappily written opening scene expelling a cloud of blue-tinted parental advice on race, sex, and the best time to apologize (never). Arthur’s just one of writer Tony Glazer’s multilayered characters, and already he’s got our attention.
Glazer keeps our attention throughout the potty-mouthed play, though he seems to want it just to have it, rather than for the sake of a larger point. But “Stain” is nothing if not watchable, from the horrifying bonding between father Arthur (Jim O’Connor) and son Thomas (Tobias Segal) to the hilariously revolting insult contests between Thomas and his buddy George (Peter Brensinger).
“Stain” presents the grand bull moose winner of dysfunctional families — a tactic that has served writers from Tracy Letts to Christopher Durang very well. Like his predecessors, Glazer gets a lot of mileage out of doling out the family’s nastier secrets one by one, though the last horror isn’t entirely a surprise.
It’s a credit to Glazer and his cast that “Stain” is not just one long exercise in trying to induce a heart condition in the members of the audience. Played by Segal, Thomas is such a good kid it’s hard not to want something more for him than the hand he’s dealt early in the play — better parents, more attention, a less set lot in life (his girlfriend has what most teenagers would consider very bad news).
The play doesn’t completely work: Several scenes in the second act don’t really serve any dramatic purpose, and the play is so full of surprises in its first hour that the little pointless asides later on goad us into toe-tapping impatience. Glazer spoils us in Act I, and during Act II we only want to hear things — funny things — we didn’t already know before intermission.
Director Scott C. Embler has several fine actors to work with — Segal and Summer Crockett Moore as his mother Julia, especially — but he hasn’t managed to get them all on the same page. O’Connor’s great big shouting Arthur, who is perfectly fine in his scenes with Segal, doesn’t really belong in the same play with Joanna Bayless’ cheery Theresa (Thomas’ grandmother). Somebody needs to adapt, though it’s not clear who.
Embler and lighting designer Nick Kolin’s decision to end every scene with a sudden blackout also proves a poor choice.
Nonetheless Glazer and Segal have managed to capture the exact moment of manhood with such precision that it’s difficult not to like this play, and Glazer has given some wonderful layers of personality to people like Arthur, a horrible racist and abusive husband who is nearly on fire with protective love for his son.
Julia, too, seems to suffer from Plucky Single Mom Syndrome until Glazer asks us to judge some of her choices, first in one context, then another.
Seen from Thomas’ frequently funny perspective (and occasionally his friend George’s), these people are maddeningly inscrutable. “He just wound up and gave her the pimp hand,” Thomas says, incredulously, of his father. It’s upsetting, but what’s a poor boy to do? Get a job at the Burger Barn? Get drunk? Get laid? Thomas tries all these, and, by the end of the piece, he’s managed to grow up.
Glazer hasn’t quite hit a bull’s-eye with “Stain,” but as he matures as a playwright, his plays will continue to be worth watching.