The Labyrinth’s take-no-prisoners performance style is made to order for the seething hostilities in “Ninth and Joanie,” Brett C. Leonard’s bleak drama about the disintegration of a family living in a rough neighborhood of South Philly in the 1980s. Applying those house techniques, actor Bob Glaudini and other company stalwarts attack their tormented characters with sadistic relish. But the Pinteresque mannerisms of Mark Wing-Davey’s labored direction are a drag on the fierce domestic battle raging between a brutal father and his two sons, suggesting that Pinter pauses are best left to Pinter plays.
An air of defeat hangs heavy on this gloomy household, made palpable by the dingy lighting (by Bradley King) that throws shadows on the drab walls and lumpy furnishings of David Meyer’s set. This is the kind of home where the sun has to fight its way through greasy windowpanes.
Dreary as it may be, people do live in this cheerless place. Charlie, the tyrannical patriarch played by Glaudini, returns home from burying his wife and sinks into his armchair without a word to Rocco, his brain-damaged younger son played by Kevin Corrigan. They will shortly be joined by Charlie’s elder son, Michael (Dominic Fumusa), and eventually by Michael’s wife, Isabella (Rosal Colon), and his young son, Carlito (Samuel Mercedes).
That just about covers the comings-and-goings in this action-free drama — apart from the violent death that closes the first act.
In the absence of action, what drives the play are the undercurrents of rage that flare up among father and sons like hot bolts of white lightning. Leonard (“The Long Red Road”) drops enough clues from the family’s violent history (which includes one accidental death, one deliberate murder and a shocking suicide) to explain the origins of this bitter hatred. But even without the explanations, the hatred itself fuels the play.
Companies like Steppenwolf (and companies that would like to be Steppenwolf) might find this difficult material an interesting challenge. But the true value of this show is the opportunity it offers to study up close the Labyrinth’s life-and-death performance style.
Glaudini, a playwright (“Jack Goes Boating”), director (“Cowboy Mouth”) and company thesp since 2004, has so few lines he could tattoo them on his body without feeling much pain. But the fierce concentration he brings to Charlie’s silent rage makes the character a truly terrifying monster.
In the dangerous role of Michael, Fumusa (“Nurse Jackie”) crashes into the narrative with blood in his eye and leaves it in splinters. Kevin Corrigan (“Lobby Hero”) has the toughest job as Rocco, who burns with a slow fuse until the moment his brother lights him up. It’s a seamless performance and almost too painful to watch — which is a compliment.
Just imagine how these perfs would play without all the killing pauses.