An adult son’s secret increases a family’s dysfunction in Rarely Done’s Beautiful Child
You need context to appreciate good titles. For some people, Beautiful Child, the title of Nicky Silver’s modest off-Broadway hit of 2004, might conjure a play about the life of a birthday party photographer for Olan Mills, or maybe one about a Jon-Benet Ramsey look-alike contest. But this is a Rarely Done Productions effort at Jazz Central, 441 E. Washington St., Syracuse’s citadel of dark irony. So is there a child? Or two? Is the child really beautiful? They produce; you decide.
At rise of curtain we hear a lengthy monologue from a grown child named Isaac (Steve Smith), who speaks of unrealized visions. We are struck immediately by two hard-to-gloss signals in the scene. For one thing, director Roy vanNorstrand has actor Smith’s Isaac speak in a full, richly modulated voice, but Isaac, pale with sunken eyes, stands there motionless. Since Smith was an antic cop in last summer’s Arsenic and Old Lace at Appleseed Productions, we know there’s nothing wrong with his body. If he looks vaguely cadaverous, might he be one himself?
Then there’s that portentous biblical name Isaac, thrust in our noses. We will also encounter metaphorical names like Victor, Hilton (same as the hotel chain) and an allusion to Sophocles. Playwright Silver and director vanNorstrand want us to be alert to energies under the surface. And it’s quite possible that everything we’re seeing is not actually happening.
The next scene, however, brings acerbic laughter, a confrontation between successful middle-aged man Harry (Thomas Minion), his mistress Delia (Heather Roach), and his wife Nan (Anne Fitzgerald). We understand who’s who immediately because Harry is pulling up his pants when we first see him, Delia is prone, and Nan storms though the door in chic black. The nasty sparks flying here start out in George-and-Martha territory and get steadily better. Copied in a reviewer’s notebook the lines might not look like much, such as, Nan: “You’ve gone all the way through cliché to archetype.” Or Delia on Nan: “She’s a stone-cold bitch with the heart the size of a snow pea.” But the scene has been wonderfully prepared by Minion and Fitzgerald (Mrs. vanNorstrand offstage). As a comic couple Minion and Fitzgerald showed their chops in the Noel Coward Tonight at 8:30 one-acts at Appleseed a year ago. Fitzgerald, simultaneously, travels the longest emotional arc.
Roach makes sacrifices for the role of Delia and gets her rewards at laugh time. Usually seen as a young woman with leading-lady good looks, she’s here remade as an uber-frump, suffering insults on her appearance. When she tells Harry she’s losing her hair, he answers distractedly, “It becomes you.” It sets the mind to reeling why a man would want an affair with a woman so much less glamorous than his wife—if only to dominate and exploit her. Worse, in porking Delia, Harry violates Nelson Algren’s much-cited law: “Never get into bed with a woman who has more troubles than you do.” Delia is a nonstop whiner and complainer, especially about her father, which returns us to the issue of the beautiful child.
Isaac, whose speech opened the play, returns home early in the first act. We can pick up from the exchanges that having reached maturity, he is something of a disappointment to his parents. He has been employed, however, as an art teacher in a city elementary school. He says he would like to return home, not just for a visit, but to stay because he’s fallen in love with someone, and people object to seeing him and his inamorata together. Initially hang-loose and accepting, Harry asks “Who is he?”
Quite a few things happen in Beautiful Child that are not hinted at in the promotion, so let’s just say that the love object turns out to be the mother of all taboos.
“I want to understand,” Harry allows to his son.
“You want to judge,” Isaac snaps back.
Right-wing moralists might rail against the alleged moral relativism of pointy-headed elitists in enterprises like live theater, but in no artistic discourse are we going to look upon this taboo with anything but horror. Unexpectedly, Harry and Nan find themselves drawing closer, while Delia, still hanging around despite Nan’s constant insults, offers a different view. Contrasting also is an unhelpful psychiatrist, Elizabeth Hilton (Theresa Constantine), a comic botch as a healing force.
In its initial run at Manhattan’s Vineyard, Beautiful Child suffered in comparison with Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia, also on the theme of taboo love that appeared a year and a half earlier. Playwright Silver can often sound like Albee anyway, but Beautiful Child strikes quite a different tone by spending so much time on family relations: the one before us, Delia’s horrible father, and then the report from a mother (Theresa Constantine again) of one of Isaac’s victims.
Different does not mean better. Beautiful Child has difficulty in maintaining tension in the earlier half of the second act. Isaac’s nonchalance regarding his revelation loses its edge, partially overcome when Delia agrees to pose for him (fully clothed) as he paints. We go through a series of monologues from Harry and Nan, and although delivered in a spotlight, the two seem to be aware of each other’s words. In general Harry and Nan are looking into themselves without giving in to acceptance. The question is never posed, but we know they have to face up to an intolerable dilemma. Isaac is right: They are judging, however reluctantly.
More welcome in the second act is a return to the verbal fireworks from the earlier half of the first act. Once again, Silver is more generous with zingers to Nan, a gift Fitzgerald does not squander. In asking that Delia make a quick exit, she snarls, “Just throw a Snickers bar out the door, and she’ll fetch it.” The resolution, however, is just as shocking as the secret, and only when it is delayed can we see that it has been subtly foreshadowed.
Director vanNorstrand’s breakthrough came two years ago with Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things on the same stage. Beautiful Child is harder to pull off, making us laugh, shocking us, and making us laugh again. And we do.
This production runs through March 17. See Times Table for information.