Friday, November 26, 2010

Vengeance is the bored's

The Horvaths come home for the holidays at the Huntington.
Reviewers have generally been vengeful toward Bob Glaudini's Vengeance is the Lord's, at the Huntington through Dec. 12. Even local sweetheart Joyce Kulhawik piled on, although the Globe's resident nicenik, Don Aucoin, was one of the few hold-outs, insisting that Glaudini's script had proved "utterly absorbing."

If only - although the production's failure really is too bad, because the playwright does take on large themes, and actually has something like his own voice (a cross between Mamet and Miller, with a shot of Shepard on the side). Indeed, Glaudini's got ambition to burn - but alas, not the commitment to craft to go with it (he has even admitted in interviews that he largely wings it). This shortfall actually makes you long at times for Annie Baker, whom Glaudini sort of orbits as antithesis, the way Count Chocula did Frankenberry; Baker, who styles herself a millennial Jane Austen, cuts cameos that make her two inches of thematic ivory glint with hints of surprising depth; meanwhile Glaudini attacks huge swaths of moral psychology with a sloppy brush, and then pretty much gives up on his overall design anyway about halfway through.

Oh, well - as if to compensate, the Huntington rolls out one of its wicked-killah sets - a spinning gothic homestead straight outta Dorchestah by Eugene Lee. Trouble is, something about this turntable keeps reminding you of what's wrong with the play - as the set spins its wheels, so does the script. Even though half the cast (mostly the younger half) does its best to keep things rolling forward, rather than in circles.

Things start off strongly enough, at the Thanksgiving dinner of the Horvath family. Mom (Roberta Wallach) and Dad (Larry Pine) may be divorced, but their extended clan still shares a deep, if complicated, bond - a kind of criminal bond, in fact. The Horvaths are tough characters who operate at the fringe of "legitimate" society; they run shady bars where the whiskey's watered down and auto shops where stolen cars have been known to be stripped. Still, they have their own codes of behavior - and we quickly sense Glaudini has his finger on the pulse of something in American mores we rarely like to acknowledge: the happy co-existence in the land of the free of familial loyalty and civic dishonesty.

The Horvaths are bound, however, by an even deeper tie - the decade-old rape and murder of their daughter. Dad is still bent on revenge, his trigger finger itching for the moment the perp might make parole; Mom, meanwhile, who is eaten up with ailments (perhaps psychosomatic ones), has begun to reconsider her internalized fury - and just might be the one whose testimony makes that parole a reality, should she see at his review, as she says, that "something has changed in his eyes."

This is a neatly paradoxical moral dynamic, and though Glaudini's focus tends to wander through his exposition, we can sense a profound dramatic conflict taking shape in his first act. Then the playwright throws in a twist that promises to bring everything to a boil when another bereaved parent (Johnny Lee Davenport) staggers to the Horvaths' front door.


It seems one of the thieves who service the clan has stolen the wrong car - it belonged to a local politician - so the police, usually happily on the take, had to take note of the  situation this time. In the ensuing arrest and mêlée, the youth made another wrong move (grabbing a cell the cops took for a gun) and was accidentally shot dead.

So the Horvaths, who have been stewing for years over the death of a daughter, suddenly find they have been instrumental in the killing of someone else's son. But the exquisite hypocrisy of their position only deeply registers with their sensitive youngest boy (Karl Baker Olson), who seems to have wandered in from "Shirley, Vermont," anyway. What's more, Dad and number one son (Lee Tergesen) quickly make the calculus that this particular grieving father has to meet with an unfortunate accident - or his heartbreaking testimony might deep-six the family's various plots.

But it's here that Glaudini deep-sixes his own play by simply killing off this powerful complication - leaving Olson and Tergesen without a real conflict to explore, and the whole script without a rudder: for if the Horvaths can so calmly calculate and execute murder, then we really can't be on the hook about their possible redemption (they're already damned). Later complications likewise go nowhere - when daughter Roanne (Katie Kreisler) begins dating a cop, we sense a whole new subplot in the offing, but this too never materializes. It's as if Glaudini kept worrying his structure might get too schematic, so he decided not to have one. But without a reliable engine driving the plot, the audience begins to check out; by the time the play reaches its inevitably-ironic coda, we really couldn't care less about the Horvaths - the holidays may change (the script works its way from Thanksgiving to Easter), but they basically don't.

Clearly, the script needs more development - and rather obviously, that process should not have included a full-scale try-out in Boston, with New York actors (Pine and Wallach) who seem, at times, to be slumming because they're out of town (Broadway vet Pine in particular stumbled repeatedly over his lines, and even fumbled important emotional beats). At least the younger New Yorkers held up their end of this sinking ship (under Peter DuBois's appropriately unobtrusive direction) - the sexy Tergesen was believably murderous, and Kreisler nicely underplayed her character's emotional survival strategies. Meanwhile Davenport was intensely gripping (when will somebody cast this guy as Othello?) and local-boy-made-good Olson (an early winner of the Hubbie Award) made the most of his big-stage debut, even though he was saddled with lines like "But what about truth and justice??" Yeah - and what about the second act, Bob? I think Vengeance actually has the potential to be a powerful play, someday - but not until Glaudini takes a hatchet to half his script and is as ruthless about building a dramatic structure as his characters are about their lives of crime.  Vengeance marks the first real stumble of the season for the Huntington; I'm hoping it's the last.

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