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A CurtainUp Review
The Little Flower of East Orange
By Elyse Sommer
With Ellen Burstyn as the pivotal character, this world premiere is very much a ticket selling star vehicle. Burstyn more than lives up to the buzz her being in this play has generated, but the LABrynth regulars contribute their share to what makes The Little Flower of East Orange blossom. David Zayas is especially noteworthy as Espinosa, an aide in the charity hospital where most of the play unfolds. And not to be overlooked in the special praise department is Michael Shannon 's impassioned performance as Burstyn's troubled son.
Like Guirgis' The Last Days of Judas Iscariut this new play has a sprawling, improvisational feel. This is especially true of the first act which seems to beg for some judicious trimming to hasten our move into the more cohesive and powerful second act.
The overall setup works well enough. A large panel upstage turns out to be a door through which Michael Shannon enters and walks to the front of the stage handcuffed to a police officer. Once unshackled he introduces himself as our narrator as well as a major character in the story to be related through real and hallucinatory flashbacks.
Shannon's Danny has just enough audience addressing stints to keep us aware of his role and the back and forth format of the story. His narration establishes his problem history: his alcoholism and rehab stays, his need for wild sex with drug-abusing girls like Nadine (Gillian Jacobs). Since the story is probably partially autobiographical, Danny is also Guirgis' stand-in.
It doesn't take detective skills to link everything in that story to Danny's relationship with his mother. However, it does take a detective — to be specific, Detective Baker (one of several small parts ably played by Arthur French)— to try to figure out the identity of the woman (Burstyn) who after an accident in the Cloisters has been brought anonymous, immobilized and in great pain to a small city owned Bronx hospital.
The unidentified woman talks a mile a minute and her morphine-induced hallucinations conjure the likes of Jimmy Stewart (French again), Pope John the 23rd (Liza Colon Zayan), Bobby Kennedy (Sidney Williams) and her deaf father (Howie Seago) to her bedside. But it's not until the hospital's slick Doctor Shankar (Ajay Naidu) takes over from Detective Baker, that she identifies herself so that Danny (with whom she lives except when he's in some rehab) and his more responsible but also emotionally uhinged younger sister Justina (Elizabeth Canavan) can be called to once again take charge of their mother's care. If this sounds a bit like The Savages, the film in which Hoffman recently appeared, it is, yet it isn't. That savage look at middle aged children dealing with incapacitated parents was light and bright compared to the dysfunction in The Little Flower of East Orange.
Burstyn's Therese Mary was traumatized long before we see her helpless and possibly near death in that hospital bed. Her tragedy— and no matter how much comic fantasy Guirgis provides, this IS a tragedy—. . . her tragedy is that she was a hearing and speaking child of a deaf couple. As if that weren't enough, the deaf father was a poor Irish immigrant who, as Danny explains "possessed a brilliant mind, and read 6 newspapers a day till the day he died and was seen by all those around him "as were all deaf people in those days — as a dummy." Understandably, being extraordinarily intelligent made deafness especially devastating and, not surprisingly, resulted in abusive behavior directed against the very people he loved.
While I don't know if the autobiographical aspects of the play extend to a deaf relative, I'd be surprised if the playwright didn't have considerable familiarity with the psychological problems that are not uncommon in households with hearing impaired family members. (I've known a few such families well enough to know about the potential for frustration-driven anger and abuse and the long-term effect on second and even third generation family members).
It bears repeating that Burstyn is terrific as the at once loving and spine tinglingly exasperating mother, the victim of a father she both loved and hated, and the delusions that enabled her to keep his secret — but which ended up with her having a toxic love/hate relationship with her own children, as if this were part of a passed along gene. She's lively, funny and, ultimately, heartbreaking. Michael Shannon, who had many people clenching their teeth watching his crazed Peter in Tracy Letts' Bug, here plays a quite different and much more sympathetic kind of crazy.
Thanks to Guirgis's vivid sense of character, the rest of the LABrynthians have ample opportunity to display their already praised acting chops. If some of the characters, like David Halzig (one of Sidney Williams multiple roles), the drugged out Nadine and the fantasy figures seem superfluous, the fault lies with the director for not encouraging the playwright to tighten the script. Aided by set designer Narelle Sissons, Hoffman has, however, succeeded in creating an effectively unfussy, if not terribly attractive, backdrop for Guirgis's non-linear, non-kitchen sink family drama. Therese Mary's hospital bed and some judiciously manipulated panels are the main scenic prop. The large, mostly empty stage echoes the emptiness of this family's life, the vastness of their problems and the religious themes tackled.
Despite the undisciplined, over-populated first act and all the muddled talk about "grace," all the colorful "extras" eventually give way and allow the three most affected and effective characters to make their way into your heart and memory.
Links to reviews of other plays by Stephen Adly Guirgis and directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman
Jesus Hopped the A Train
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
Our Lady of 121st Street