Scribe Donald Margulies (a Pulitzer Prize winner for “Dinner with Friends”) knows how to write dialogue that remains civilized, but hits hard and below the belt. In the very first scene of this family drama, two estranged brothers greet one another with mutual loathing. Billy, the prodigal bro played by Lee Tergesen (“Oz”) chides his sibling for looking “older” and “balder,” to which taunt David (Kelly Aucoin) replies that Billy seems “smaller.”
The tone of their reunion — staged at Christmastime for maximum awkwardness — goes downhill from there. David, a prosperous money-mover on Wall Street, just wants Billy to leave his office. When the action moves uneasily into David’s elegant apartment, he becomes even more desperate to dislodge his brother from the living room couch.
John Lee Beatty has designed both office and apartment settings with the kind of cool sophistication that takes a master of restraint to pull off. Case in point: it may be the Christmas season, but there’s no showy tree in sight, no tacky ornaments, no clumsily wrapped presents — just a very large and beautifully tasteful green wreath. When David’s wife, Molly, comes on the scene in the always welcome person of Annie Parisse, that sophisticated vibe extends to Toni-Leslie James’s costume designs.
The change of scenery, executed to handsome effect with hold-your-breath efficiency, does nothing to lighten the brothers’ combative mood. Both siblings excel at this tame game of fraternal warfare, and under Daniel Sullivan’s helming, both performers wield their verbal weapons with cunning and skill. Had the boys slugged it out in the schoolyard once in a while, their grownup battle might have had an edge of fierceness. But their upper-middle-class upbringing was evidently too civilized for such gutter tactics.
The problem is, Margulies gives us little context for this edgy interplay between brothers. We’re told that Billy received an early release after doing 18 months in prison, and there’s a suggestion that he might have been responsible for his parents’ untimely death. “You’re a chaos machine,” David tells Billy in exasperation for his selfish stunts, one of which (don’t worry –no spoiler here) is so lowdown that it makes his character contemptible, even beyond redemption.
That presents a serious dramaturgical problem, since the character is supposed to be seductive as well as repellent. Tergesen is a bona fide charmer — no argument there — but as applied specifically to Billy, that charm has the creepy edge of some psychopath like Ted Bundy. When David’s college-age son, Jeremy (the very watchable Alex Wolff), expresses some admiration, even affection for his manipulative Uncle Billy, you want to rescue the kid from that narcissistic bad boy.
Credit where credit is due: the characters are well-drawn and well-spoken. But because there’s nothing seriously at stake here, their quarrel shapes up as being largely about language itself. How to make words hurt. How to slap someone in the face with a slur. How to draw blood with a cutting insult. Margulies has a great ear, but lacking credible context, language is only pretty talk.