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A CurtainUp Review
This Thing of Darkness
by Les Gutman
Darkness is indeed the prevailing sensibility in this fascinating and surreal new play, a collaborative effort between Craig Lucas, who also directs, and his apparent protégé, David Schulner. It's not just that the story itself is a loury one; it has been suffused with so much shadowy enigma that one is left spinning and discomfited. I found myself lulled into the uneasy state a good writer of psychological thrillers aims for, but without the use of the standard bag of tricks that at least gives the audience something secure to hold onto.
As it begins, This Thing has the markings of a coming-of-age tale. Abbey (Chris Messina) and Donald (Daniel Eric Gold) have just graduated from college, and are hanging out together, perhaps for the last time, at the secluded old New England place to which Abbey's parents -- Frank (Thomas Jay Ryan) and Molly (Mary McCann) -- have moved. Abbey has a dismissive attitude towards his parents that one could say is typical at his stage in life, and the boys likewise exhibit the punkish cynicism that often comes with a good diploma. The playwrights hoist some red flags -- Abbey is not taking the pills he needs for some unspecified (apparently chronic, mental) condition, and there's a bandage on his hand; there's also something curious about the sexual energy that surrounds his relationship with Donald.
But today is the 22nd birthday of both boys, and a cake with candles is enough to suspend these sorts of anxieties temporarily. Very temporarily, actually.
The play wishes to examine the lives of the two boys over three generations. Be careful what you wish for. When the candles are blown out, the mundane unanswered questions of the first scene are supplanted by the troubling ones of the era in which Abbey (now Ms. McCann) and Donald (now Mr. Ryan), time-tripping, find themselves. (Larry Keith and Ralph Waite are brought on board at this point, as Molly and Frank.) This is a world of implanted cell phones and warped cults (membership including but not limited to Messina and Gold as Abbey's self-named children, Reef and Skim) in which the imperative of "try and love one another right now" takes on new literalness. And that's still light fare compared to the post-apocalyptic next scene, in which Keith and Waite inhabit tunnels as the Abbey and Donald characters.
All of the performances are quite fine, as is Mr. Lucas's direction, the sets, costumes, and especially lighting and sound. Incidentally, the play can be very funny. But all of this seems almost beside the point. This is a work, like Albee's The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?, that has its greatest impact after you leave the theater and start thinking about what you have witnessed.
I'm inclined to think many will express frustration over this play. There is a lot that's not clear, and most of it is by design. Who are these people, and why should we care about them? Should we stress over all of the gender shifting that's going on in the cast? Are the sins of the father visited on the son? Lucas and Schulner have no intention of making things easy for us, or of providing us an emotional landscape in which rationalizations can be wrapped in neat packages. Why should they? From this Darkness there is no escape.
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