Joyce Carol Oates’ new play is wrapped in an all-but-impenetrable veneer of contemporary academyspeak, but it’s Henrik Ibsen she’s got on her mind, from the title –“The Truth-Teller” is the self-description of several Ibsen characters — to the names of the play’s two most prominent female characters, Hedda Culligan and her mother, Nora.
Hedda (Lynn Hawley), a graduate student in psychosocial linguistics, has brought her Jewish professor boyfriend home to her millionaire Catholic parents’ Buffalo home after an absence of five years. The ostensible reason is to be on hand to celebrate the Culligan’s 35th wedding anniversary, but like an Ibsen heroine, Hedda has something more on her mind, and what it is is obvious from the outset.
Hedda is no teller of truths, and neither is boyfriend Saul Schwartz (Andrew Polk). Indeed, for all the lingo-babble about being “fully deconstructed” people who have eliminated sex bias and gender agendas from their language, they basically do nothing but lie to each other, as Hedda sets her sights on the family business and Saul sets his on her slutty sister, Maggie (Barbara Gulan).
Meanwhile, Nora (Kathleen Widdoes), fed up with the boorishness and bullying of husband “Tiny” (John Seitz), who has made a fortune in fences, walks out the door to freedom — though this Nora, unlike her prototype, quickly returns to the fold after a brief dalliance with an aging tenor not so subtly named “Nelly” (Richard Seff). Completing the picture is Culligan firstborn Biff (Craig Bockhorn), who doesn’t want the business anyway and will be perfectly content to pass through life in, yes, Maggie’s silks and pumps.
This probably reads considerably more humorous than it actually is, for Oates doesn’t have a clue about how to breathe life into any of these characters, and neither does her director, Gloria Muzio. What we can discern in five minutes takes 2 1/2 hours to unfold, and it seems like 2 1/2 weeks, despite the game efforts of fine cast. Along with the phony dialogue (for this, a program note thanks Deborah Tannen), much is made of Saul’s Jewishness — no one seems able to pronounce either of his names — in ways that aren’t so much offensive as completely idiotic.
Capping things off, the play sits awkwardly in this theater’s thrust space, and Stephan Olson’s cumbersome design constantly stops what little action there is dead in its tracks for frequent, endless scene changes. The rest of the tech credits are OK. But the evening is excruciating.