As a playwright, Lillian Hellman always went for the jugular, and “Toys in the Attic,” receiving its first L.A. production in 20 years, at the Colony Theater, hits one melodramatic hot button after another — incest, insanity, impotence, interracial relationships. “Toys,” which garnered five Tony noms in 1960, remains gripping and hypnotic, despite a talky first third and some strident acting choices.
Tom Buderwitz’s impeccable set — a neatly nondescript New Orleans home with fraying Oriental rugs, old upright piano with chipped keys and wicker rocking chair — physicalizes the fading dreams and shabbily genteel, empty lives of two middle-age spinsters, Carrie (Bonita Friedericy) and Anna (Caryn West). Both dote on their adored younger brother, Julian (Donald Sage Mackay), a dreamer who borrows money, botches every business venture and returns home for periodic financial rescue.
Early expositional scenes, in which Carrie and Anna discuss an unseen Julian, don’t catch fire, but when Julian arrives with his childlike bride, Lily (Jane Longenecker), startling them with news of sudden wealth, director Jessica Kubzansky sweeps us up in the shock of everyone’s unexpected reaction. Carrie, who wants her brother totally dependent, ridicules and rejects a shower of expensive gifts. The more supportive Anna is equally skeptical. Lily, daughter of rich landowner Albertine (Nancy Linehan Charles), discards the expensive new ring Julian gives her and focuses instead on a mysterious woman she mistakenly believes is having an affair with him.
“I sure managed to depress my ladies,” says a dejected Julian, and Mackay is harrowingly believable as the ecstatic, irrepressible recipient of good fortune who can’t grasp the poisonous, strangling agendas of those around him. One of the play’s most memorable exchanges shows Julian boyishly bragging about his windfall to mother-in-law Albertine, and we wince at his excitement, sensing the disaster to come.
Charles’ Albertine, elegantly costumed by Alexa Stone in matching beige dress, shoes, hat and gloves, is every inch a woman of means — a multidimensional, fascinating figure who dominates her scenes as the one person who sees through everyone’s artificial facades. Alex Morris as Henry, her secret black lover, conveys strength and charisma.
Friedericy vividly communicates Carrie’s relentless, compulsive lust for control, but a tendency toward shrillness in the first half makes it hard to accept Anna’s estimate of her as “the frail, the flutter, the soft.” This lack of a flirtatious Southern belle quality robs her incestuous yearnings toward her brother of sexual undercurrent and tension. Although individual confrontations with her sister register realistically, Friedericy is overly muted when engineering the monstrous events that precipitate Julian’s destruction.
Longenecker breaks the fourth wall too frequently with spectator-directed outbursts and misses the consciously manipulative side of her character, but she strongly projects Lily’s simple-mindedness and incipient madness. Caryn West is subtle and affecting as Anna.
Kubzansky doesn’t always meld her cast into a seamless ensemble. Where she unequivocally succeeds is in dramatizing Hellman’s main themes: the lethal effect of possessive love, and the tragic results of coveting money and regarding it as a guarantee of happiness.