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The Hope Zone

"The Hope Zone" is, to say the least and kindest, a confusing place to be. By turns -- very jagged turns -- bluntly naturalistic and fuzzy-headedly mystical, Kevin Heelan's odd new play raises plenty of hopes (the false variety, it turns out) as it approaches, then abandons, any number of notions, some more intriguing than others. Long before the play blathers its way to incomprehension during the second act, "The Hope Zone" and a cast headed by Olympia Dukakis flail for a grip on something, anything, to find a way through tricky territory.

“The Hope Zone” is, to say the least and kindest, a confusing place to be. By turns — very jagged turns — bluntly naturalistic and fuzzy-headedly mystical, Kevin Heelan’s odd new play raises plenty of hopes (the false variety, it turns out) as it approaches, then abandons, any number of notions, some more intriguing than others. Long before the play blathers its way to incomprehension during the second act, “The Hope Zone” and a cast headed by Olympia Dukakis flail for a grip on something, anything, to find a way through tricky territory.

Dukakis stars as Countess (the nickname isn’t explained), a recovering alcoholic who has turned her ocean-front apartment house in Maryland into some sort of resort haven for other 12-steppers. Despite an apparently hard-edged nature, Countess is a supportive presence to such tenants as Fern (Barbara Caren Sims), a senator’s ditsy wife who annoys everyone with her insecurities and Annie Hall-ish vocal tics, and Veeche (George Morfogen), an ominous caretaker with strange healing powers and dark ties to a murky religious sect. Skeptically observing all is Newton (Craig Bockhorn), Countess’ gruffly insensitive fiance, who cooks for the resort’s snack bar. A former cop, Newton snidely dismisses the bleeding-heart tenets that have salvaged Countess’ life.

Disrupting further this tenuous household is Maureen (Anne Scurria), Countess’ long-absent daughter, who stumbles home strung-out, sick and zombie-eyed. Played by Scurria with a voice shaky enough to register on the Richter scale, Maureen, coughing blood and facing death, begs her mother-from-hell to raise her young son. While Countess is deciding what to do, Maureen moves in and, per Countess’ demands, sets about 12-stepping.

At its core, “The Hope Zone” is a mother-daughter blame-fest, with wounds cruelly re-opened — Countess is haunted by the long-ago death of the young son who drowned while she lay drunk on a beach — but Heelan also wants to investigate such weighty issues as individual moral responsibility, transcendent faith and the redemption of love.

While he’s pondering his ideas, Heelan, who successfully wove race issues throughout his slice-of-life drama “Distant Fires,” here seems to forget minor inconveniences; plot, comprehensible dialogue, credible character development. Exactly where is Maureen’s young son? What on Earth attracts Countess to the piggishly cruel Newton (badly miscast and unconvincingly played), and what’s the point (beyond the playwright’s self-conscious whim) of stylizing the speech to the extent that, durig one 20-minute stretch, Newton seems to end every other sentence with the phrase “type of thing,” then just as quickly drops the verbal mannerism?

And what’s to be made of the pseudo-mystical babble that has Veeche teaching Countess how to save her dying daughter? That the ritual involves the drinking of Maureen’s probably HIV-tainted blood is the most blatant grotesquerie in what has devolved into an ugly, cruel play. In “The Hope Zone,” brutal honesty is merely brutal, and only the most generous observer will excuse the nastiness by saying it’s Heelan’s artistic intention.

Had Richard Jenkins directed the play in a more lyrical style, the abundant crudeness might seem more subtly menacing, certainly more interesting. Instead, he literally and figuratively turns the house lights up throughout the play, and places the audience in chairs and sofas within the performance space, the better , unfortunately, to witness the indignity of Dukakis slipping the panties from under her dress while spewing an astoundingly silly sexual come-on.

The cast is unable to make credible dialogue that is studded with “uh,””OK” and bizarre syntax. Dukakis fares best, mostly by avoiding the hyper-mannered style that makes everyone else look actorly during supposedly gut-wrenching moments. But even Dukakis can’t mouth a B-movie line like “There’s nothing more pathetic than a sot in the Hope Zone” without resorting to melodramatic delivery. Sam Spade, drink your heart out.

The Hope Zone

Production: A Circle Repertory Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Kevin Heelan. Directed by Richard Jenkins.

Crew: Set, Eugene Lee; costumes, Walker Hicklin; lighting, Russell Champa; production stage manager, Tom Stone; production manager, Karen A. Potosnak; associate producer, Jerad Prods. Artistic director, Austin Pendleton; managing director, Milan Stitt. Opened, reviewed, Jan. 9, 1996 , at the Circle Repertory Theater; 300 seats; $ 45. Running time: 2 HOURS.

With: With: Olympia Dukakis (Countess), Barbara Caren Sims (Fern), Anne Scurria (Maureen), Craig Bockhorn (Newton), George Morfogen (Veeche).

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