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Writing for CurtainUp NYC Weather
|A CurtainUp Review
As you take your seat at the Atlantic Theater, your eyes take in a sparsely furnished stage: a red brick wall at the rear, a bare blue panel angled to one side, a single chair, a metal file cabinet and and a very large undecorated Christmas tree. It all looks more barren than ominous. The only sign that one of the characters you are about to meet is a child are some sticks, a piece of chalk and a lone swing.
That child's story is the focal point of this three-year old Australian drama though it might have been torn from some of this country's most unsettling recent headline reports of child-against-child violence. The wolf of the title, the dark shadow haunting this play's troubled child is never seen, except through the eerie rhymes sung by a group of equally invisible children. Neither do we see any other citizens of the dreary industrial town in Tasmania where this frighteningly timely tale unfolds. No neighbors. No psychologists. No screaming reporters or high-tech projections. Yet, bit by bit, with only little Lizzie, her parents and a single outsider, to provide the clues, playwright Hilary Bell makes us witnesses to the murder interrogation of a child and by extension the trial of a society that seems incapable of preventing or dealing with such tragedies.
The trial scene is not in a courtroom but in the day-by-day scenes between the Gael family and the play's one outsider. The Gaels - mother Angela (Mary McCann) and dad Warren (Jordan Lage) -- are amiable enough but have clearly tuned out nine-year-old daughter Lizzie's (Kate Blumberg, an adult) frantic neediness and signs of problematic behavior. The outsider is Sergeant Ray Armstrong(Larry Bryggmann), the policeman who spots Lizzie's "bad seed" tendencies. (This has become a common term when blaming bad behavior on nature or genetic makeup rather than lack of proper nurturing. It dates back to a famous 50s play and movie about a born-to-be-bad, as in killer-bad, little girl).
Sergeant Armstrong, unlike the parents tries to deal (not very effectively) with Lizzie's petty thieving and strangling of a schoolmate's canary, and before long her possible killing. And so through Lizzie alone, Lizzie with her parents, Lizzie an the Sergeant, Lizzie and her mother, the mother and father, etc. etc. that small signals become blazing red flags. The only other voices we hear are those unseen children's chants and the noise represented by the also unseen wolf. The sounds of these invisible "characters" plus the high-tension music (all by Donald DiNicola) punctuates the blackouts that end each of the sixteen brief scenes.
Under Neil Pepe's direction this sharp-edged, tightly focused approach to Ms. Bell's volatile drama works well,. The four actors who are all Atlantic Theater regulars are seasoned troupers. Mr. Bryggmann and Ms. McCann make the most of the fact that they have the roles that call for the most subtle shifts in their characters. Bryggmann's tough cop whose methods of dealing with grade-school delinquents are hardly exemplary shows himself to also be a father, just as Mrs. Gael's fierce protectiveness of her child turns to frustrated and pained rejection.
If all this sounds like the sort of gritty, refusing to bow to commercialism plays that companies like the Atlantic and 29th Street Rep are known for, hold up on the standing ovation.
Ms. Bell has quite cleverly kept extraneous characters -- especially the metaphoric wolf -- off stage in the interests of minimalism, but the play itself seems weighed down by her sociological intentions. Too often her characters seem mouthpieces for issues that trouble her: unforgiving attitudes towards young killers as "bad seeds " when they might be victims of bad parenting . . . the fact that all kids have violent instincts that could have been tamed and could still be kept from continuing . . . the overall influence of a society which deceitfully turns the other cheek on every day misdeeds and deceit. In spite of the good acting, this sense of sociological tract keeps the people on stage from getting through to you on a visceral level rather than as characters cobbled together from news stories and interviews. At times, it even makes the mere 75-minute running time and swift scene shift seem much longer.
Finally, there's the matter of having a grown actor play the part of a nine-year-old child. Ms. Blumberg captures the nuances of young Lizzie so well that she almost brings it off. Almost, but not quite. You never really forget that she's a grownup. Just one more factor to keep you from getting fully inside this story and these people, instead of remaining a bystander. No small measure of the success of the play mentioned parenthetically above, Maxwell Anderson adaptation of William March's The Bad Seed, was due to the fact that a remarkable nine-year-old (Patty MacCormack) played the eight-year-old main character on stage, and at just two years older, reprised the role on screen. That play/movie also played the child killer phenomenon to the hilt -- as fictional invention like Quasimodo, like Frankenstein. Wolf Lullaby is forged from a melange of uncomfortably recognizable case histories -- a worthy issue play, but not quite of the one-of-a-kind true grit caliber of Mojo or ) The Beauty Queen of Leenane, (also at the Atlantic) and the currently on the boards elsewhere, Killer Joe.