There are good reasons why an edgy company like The New Group might be attracted to “Blood From a Stone,” an ungainly semi-autobiographical first play by novice scribe Tommy Nohilly about a blue-collar family consumed by rage and destined for violence. The play may be a shapeless mass of disconnected scenes with no cohesive dramatic core, but the characters are full of angry life. And while that anger makes them almost inarticulate, there’s no escaping the power of their fierce threats and howling curses. In short, this is the kind of play that can really challenge a company.
Under the helming of Scott Elliott, the founding a.d. of The New Group, a brilliant ensemble makes good on that challenge by digging deep and finding the humanity in these unlovable characters.
Gordon Clapp (“Glengarry Glen Ross”) is riveting as Bill, the bullish patriarch of this dysfunctional family. Bristling with angry energy, he storms around the house bellowing orders, working himself up into fits of fury and terrifying everyone with his sudden outbursts of violence.
Clapp makes no excuses for this petty tyrant, whose pathological anger has made this family what it is — a wreck. But he shows deep understanding and great compassion for this inarticulate brute when he clumsily attempts to communicate with the son who despises him.
Ann Dowd turns in an equally astonishing performance as Margaret, the shrewish wife whose constant complaints and unrelenting verbal abuse goad Bill into the very acts of violence for which she castigates him. There is terrific physicality to this punishing performance, especially in moments when Margaret extends clutching hands to the son she loves, but knows she’s losing.
Ethan Hawke (“The Coast of Utopia”) plays Travis, the son that both Bill and Margaret are desperately clinging to. Although Travis seems to be the only person capable of keeping this volatile household from erupting, he’s determined to make a break for it — if the guilt doesn’t get to him. Hawke plays it low-key, but there’s a terrific tension to his performance as Travis keeps trying to make good his escape before he’s caught up in the family’s endless cycle of violence.
He gets no help from his sister, Sarah (Natasha Lyonne), a nurse who has washed her hands of this domestic conflict, or from his ex-girlfriend, Yvette (Daphne Rubin-Vega), who just wants his body. Meanwhile, his brother, Matt (Thomas Guiry), contributes to the family meltdown by leaving his wife and kids, taking up with a married woman, and running up gambling debts that bring him up against the mob.
Because the play is not constructed in a way that events follow a logical dramatic pattern, the characters in this toxic household can only simmer in their own juices until released by the inevitable ending. But while the characters are compelling, they are also unrelenting, and there really are limits to how long an audience can squirm in their company.