Unlike his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Doubt” and his Oscar-winning “Moonstruck,” playwright John Patrick Shanley’s “Beggars” doesn’t have clean, linear clarity. It comes at you in non sequiturs, mixes screwball comedy with grim drama, and shifts between reality and illusion. The ingredients don’t always work, especially some heavy-handed climactic confrontations. When they do, it’s because of Shanley’s original, zany wit, an exceptionally fine portrayal by Johnny Clark and excellent acting all around.
Clark is 5-year-old Johnny as the story starts, son of cold Noreen (Annie Abbott) and cruel Pop (Eddie Jones), a butcher who relishes working in a slaughterhouse and arrives onstage in a blood-soaked apron. The apron signals Pop’s violent tendencies, and when Johnny’s older brother Joey (Jeffrey Stubblefield) returns home from Vietnam, Pop excoriates him for not completing high school, emphasizing that he regards Joey’s dropout status as a heinous, inexcusable crime.
Johnny’s sister Sheila (Kimberly-Rose Wolter) is about to be married, waving aside warnings from relative and nun Sister Mary Kate (Amanda Carlin) that marrying a Polish Catholic can only bring grief. Wolter is appealing as she ecstatically contemplates her wedding (“I’m the center of everything!”), and Carlin’s boisterous delivery makes the most of funny lines.
Director Anita Khanzadian succeeds in extracting character nuances from this portion of the story, but the plot dawdles, leaving spectators unsure of what the play is about and where it’s going.
Everything kicks in when Johnny (now a teenager) and Joey have a scene that exposes every facet of their troubled relationship. Johnny admits he can’t stop lying, setting fires and smashing windows, and Joey taunts and terrorizes him, then says, “Johnny, I love you,” a moment that suddenly, unexpectedly, proves deeply moving. Johnny’s answering admission to Joey, “You’re my hero,” carries the same emotional weight, before mutual resentment pries them apart again.
Clark illuminates Johnny’s soul and makes clear, through the quagmire of unresolved conflicts, that Johnny is a survivor. Joey, for all his swagger and cockiness, is the one mortally damaged, and Stubblefield conveys that torment superlatively when he says to Johnny, “You think I’m not going to make it,” and suffers as his father gives Johnny a ring, ignoring Joey’s needs and feelings.
Abbott rises to the occasion when she has a good line. After Johnny’s plea, “Tell me you love me,” she responds, “It won’t sound believable,” a derisive dismissal that has the bruising ring of truth. Otherwise, her mother character is the least interesting, filled with self-involved prattle that pales when compared with the other principals.
As the ruthless, raging butcher-father, Eddie Jones is pure animal, and helmer Khanzadian allows him the lashing leeway he needs. Beefy, brutal, he reduces Joey to “a whipped dog in a corner.” He tells Johnny, “I hit you, the same as him — he fell down,” fully justifying Johnny’s remark, “I’ll never think of you without being shocked by your lovelessness.”
Inevitably, a statement emerges, “We could have loved each other — it was there for all of us,” but this father-son connection is so ugly and unbalanced that a neat psychological wrap-up isn’t convincing, and it’s impossible to accept that Johnny retains any residual affection for this monster.
Most of Shanley’s tart observations avoid such easy sentiment, and what sticks painfully in mind is the wreckage of a family — a destroyed, broken Joey and the sad sight of Johnny facing the audience, knowing even as he reaches manhood that too much damage has been done for him to ever be fully whole.