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|A CurtainUp Review
If Tolstoi had been a teacher in a program for would-be dramatists, he might have told his students: Happy families are all alike -- but dig into the root of the family tree and you'll have at least one dysfunctional lightning rod to intensify your dramatic arc. The lightning rod and title character (Ned Eisenberg) in Matthew Weiss' new family drama is a man maddeningly self-deluded and overbearing whose love for his eldest son Sammy (played by the author) is more devouring than nourshing .
Hesh is a small-time lawyer who has become crippled emotionally (drug dependent) as well as physically (crutch-dependent) after an accident. Sound like a Bronx version of the Tyrones in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey, Into Night? Once you learn that Hesh is a lawyer who arranges bookings for musicians instead of himself playing the trumpet, you might also be reminded of a more current father-son drama, Side Man. (See link to both plays at end).
Unfortunately, Mr. Weiss's drama is too much like a piece of Swiss cheese to be on a par with either of these memorable dramas. The biggest hole in the unfolding story of Hesh's destructive domination of his introverted son and self-destructive binges of shoplifting and other messy behavior is the casting premise of having adults play their characters as both children and adults. This demand on audience credulity is exacerbated by the fact that young Sammy the introvert is is remarkably verbal. Jacob (Marcus Weiss) stretches our credulity by metamorphosing from silent lumpishness, to a blend of proper Swiss-German (complete with teutonic accent) and Niles of Frasier.
Mr. Eisenberg's strong portrayal of Hesh spans seventeen years, from 1974 to 1991. He is scrappy cannonball of bravado, manipulation and rage. His Bronx accent and tough talking puffed-up ego mask a mile long streak of unhappiness and insecurity seeded by his own unhappy relationship with his father. Like Sammy, you want to reach out and push Hesh away and tell him to shut up, yet there's just enough charm to keep you from disliking him.
Each short scene is a minor battle, mostly showing Sammy desperately trying to evade Hesh's invasive helpfulness and camaraderie. He doesn't want to be a Boy Scout, but Hesh wants to be a Scout leader and so the Scouts it is. He doesn't want to go shopping at Korvette's but to Korvette's they go. Sammy's attractive Swiss mother (Jennifer Van Dyck) tries to help but in the end the only help she can offer is to split up the family.
The first half of the play leads towards the family breakup, the second takes us through the aftermath. While both brothers accompanied their mother to her homeland, only Jacob stayed -- distancing himself from his Bronx-Hesh roots so completely that he has become a foreigner in the country of his birth. Sensitive Sammy is now an artist with spiked hair, an apparently not too satisfactory relationship with a girl friend (Jennifer Albano) and, before long, a drug habit of his own. Hesh is still in the picture, as needy, obnoxiously seductive as ever. His shattered dream of reconciliation with Bianca and the anticipation of major surgery leads to the inevitable rapprochement between father and son.
Frank Pugliese, himself a playwright of considerable talents has directed this drama at a brisk pace and with a minimum of stage business. Antje Ellermann and Derek McLane's bare-bones set design, most effectively lit by Jeff Croiter, provides just enough detail for the audience to fill in the rest. (See our interview with McLane linked at the end).
Neither good direction and acting, however, can overcome the already mentioned major problems. There are others. For starters, it's hard to believe that Hesh could make it through even a third-rate law school and pass the bar exams. Sammy's hand washing phobia seems to arrive from left field. In the final analysis the credibility gaps make something of a hash of Hesh. Too bad, for there's a lot of talent here.
Consumer Note: At one point both men light up Marlboros, (to underscore how close Sammy has moved towards becoming like the father from whom he yearns to be free). I don't know if these are herbal cigarettes but in a small theater like the Intar any kind of smoke can be annoying to the smoke sensitive, so if you number yourself among these, caveat emptor. On a more positive note, the tickets are a bargain-priced $15 so you can afford to check your opinion against that expressed here.
CurtainUp's interview with set designer Derek McLane
Reviews of two productions of Long Day's Journey. . .Long Day's Journey