I’m sure you didn’t tell me Trudi was a vegetarian.” Paola Dionisotti’s delivery of an early line about her son Peter’s girlfriend is deliciously disingenuous. Goaded but, so far, only mildly exasperated, Peter replies, “My version of events against yours.” That clash between contradictory ways of remembering, seeing and, ultimately, being is what fires up the compellingly multifaceted “Apologia,” Alexi Kaye Campbell’s hotly anticipated successor to last year’s Olivier-winning debut “The Pride.” (Joe Mantello will direct that play Off Broadway for MCC in January.)
From “The Oresteia” through Ibsen’s “Ghosts,” family reunion plays are nothing new. But if Campbell is using old bottles, the richly satisfying wine he so confidently pours is new — not least because his play isn’t about the sins of the father. He’s interested in the mother.
A renowned Renaissance art historian in her 60s, Kristin (Dionisotti) is celebrating not only her birthday with her sons and their girlfriends but the publication of her highly praised memoir. Her book stands as a testament to her idealism and individualism, which grew out of radical 1960s politics and the power struggles that saw men dominating thinking and action.
Her sons Peter (Tom Beard) and Simon (John Light) take a very different view from critics and readers. They believe she has rewritten history because they have been wholly excluded from her version of events. But what makes the play so engrossing is Campbell’s juggling act. Instead of writing a debate play, he vividly dramatizes Kristin’s driven sense of dedication via alternately hilarious and painfully touching struggles of long-simmering family resentment.
The most excitingly dangerous of dramatists don’t so much play with fire as plant bombs to create suspense. But the secret of making long-range explosions of character or plot lies in the timing, and one of the most cunning aspects of “Apologia” is the unpredictable timing of its bombs.
Almost comically aware of treading down familiar paths, Campbell uses audience expectation to winning effect. Across scenes of a naturalistic dinner party, a latenight confrontation and the morning after, the playwright confounds audience notions of where a character, a revelation or a scene will lead. Yet both the structure and play are the opposite of tricksy.
A rare depth of compassion is what’s actually being provided. In a tour de force, domineering Dionisotti brings razorlike asperity to almost every line, snapping out retorts like someone shelling peas. But her silent self-denial is equally breathtaking. Peter is a successful international banker, and his fiancee, Trudi (an electrifying Sarah Goldberg), is an irony-free, born-again Christian. Kristin’s putdowns of them both are so witty that the couple instantly appear to be the butt of the playwright’s jokes.
But this is typical misdirection. A far subtler game of gradually shifting perspective is actually being played and, by the end, the balance of sympathies has swung in completely unexpected directions. The uncovering of past behavior and motives allows every character to be seen in dimensions bordering on the Chekhovian.
And, like Chekhov, Campbell refuses to accept the theatrical tyranny of neatness. Hearts are shockingly poured out, but the airing of long-suppressed feelings doesn’t lead to obvious conclusions. That’s most telling in the handling of Simon.
His confronting of his mother and his recounting of a frightening night when he was left alone as an 11-year-old boy in an Italian train station is astonishingly evocative. Light couples fierce self-control to a shiveringly upsetting sense of hope as Simon forces Kristin to understand his fear and loss. But what makes the scene so remarkable is its tenderness. It’s not the events of the story that are crucial; it’s the transfixing detail in the writing that makes it so powerful.
Pushed to extremes, the characters are often laugh-aloud funny at moments of highest drama, as in Nina Sosanya’s lightning switch from overdressed soap actress to truth teller. Campbell, previously an actor, creates roles with mouth-watering opportunities, seized here by an ideal cast, exactingly directed by Josie Rourke.
Her touch is as evident in the perfectly choreographed cross-rhythms of five people squabbling over a Chinese dinner as it is in her handling of the complex and perilously knotted family ties. By always making the emotional undertow legible, Rourke charges every pause with tension.
“Why can’t you just respect the fact that people don’t always see things the way you do?” cries Peter. The true pleasure of “Apologia” is the reverse of that: Campbell’s mature ability to let the audience see everyone’s perspective. His vision not only makes for a richly entertaining evening, it blows the notion of Second Play Syndrome out of the water.