The woman who plots with her lover to kill her husband is the subject of a thousand scripts. The woman who enlists her lover to kill her child is another, altogether rarer subject for investigation. In Angus MacLachlan’s brutal “The Dead Eye Boy,” the infanticide storyline is not entirely evident until the play’s harrowing penultimate scene, when a bizarre confluence of circumstance, drugs and anger trips the wire that leads to Soren’s gruesome death at the hands of his mother, Shirley-Diane, and her new husband, Billy. Is it murder? One could say neither of them meant to kill the 14-year-old boy until, of course, they actually do. But wrapping duct tape around an adolescent’s mouth and nose must take some degree of premeditation. Certainly the act of not removing the tape as he slowly asphyxiates on the floor in front of them should obliterate any question of guilt or innocence. But does it? As MacLachlan tells his story, Shirley-Diane may have envisioned this murder 14 years ago, or even earlier — from the moment she was raped at 14 and then gave birth to Soren. MacLachlan’s play isn’t for the squeamish, but then, tragic stories delivered at such an unrelenting fever pitch rarely are.
For two of the quickest hours in theater, “Dead Eye Boy” alternates moments of presentational confession with extended scenes of such fourth-wall intimacy that you may feel pangs of guilt for eavesdropping on this unholy family of three. Whenever the lights go up on Shirley-Diane’s brown-on-beige family room, we seem to have stumbled into the middle of the action. Something, we’re not sure what, has just transpired. And what’s about to happen MacLachlan never lets us know until it’s right upon us.
Director Susan Fenichell keeps her audience both on the edge and at a distance, with most of the action placed way upstage on Christine Jones’ small but deep playing space. Russell H. Champa adds to the unsettling effect by occasionally underlighting a scene.
And then there is the cast.
Even with a story this raw, there are opportunities to soften and sentimentalize, especially with the Soren character — a real victim if there ever was one. To his credit, Aaron Himelstein never goes to that place. His is a rock-hard, tough portrayal that continually reinforces Shirley-Diane’s mantra that hers is a no-good child. In the end, of course, Soren is just 14 years old, even if he does steal a truck, score some crack and bash a pet kitten against his mother’s bedroom door.
As Shirley-Diane’s unwitting accomplice, Joseph Murphy inhabits Billy so completely it’s impossible to imagine this actor as anything other than dimwitted and, to a fault, eager to please despite very limited capabilities. With a penchant for instant gratification, the crack-addicted Shirley-Diane uses him pretty much as a sex machine until, finally, he also functions as a death machine.
In nearly every scene, MacLachlan presents a slightly different variation on the abused and abusive Shirley-Diane, and in a performance that no other actress is likely to match this season, Lili Taylor brings together these scattered elements into one very tormented, frequently drug-addled body. We may occasionally see the mind working out the design of her performance, but hers is a very good mind and a grand design that is never less than absolutely compelling to observe.
One might quibble with some of MacLachlan’s more presentational scenes, which place the actors downstage as they speak to an offstage social worker, shrink or group of fellow addicts. Although never awkwardly written, or delivered onstage, these confessions often come across more as expository shortcuts than as fully realized drama. If George or Martha ever did the therapy thing, Edward Albee had the good theatrical sense not to tell us about it.