BY TULIS McCALL
If you make it to the second act of this sluggish production you will see a master class in acting. John Pankow pulls the heart of this play out of a hat and hands it to us. Pankow drops into despair as though he were weighted at the ankles and crumples as we watch.
I’m fifty years old now…. I ‘m scared. I can’t seem to hold onta anything. Life’s slipping away and I never learned what it’s all about. I dunno how to live. I oughta have someone teach me. I dunno how to live.
No one in this story does. And that seems to be Inge’s point. In so many ways this is brave writing. Set at Christmas time in 1962, this is the story of a single woman, Sue Barker (Kathryn Erbe) who has a successful career as a lingerie buyer for a department store. What is not so successful is her relationship with her man Bernie (Alec Beard) who is not only living with her, he is bringing in less money than she. For those of you who remember 1962 – this is two ENORMOUS no-no’s. People who lived together without being married were few, and men who were supported by a woman were looked upon as something unnatural. Even in New York, this had to be a whopper of circumstance.
Inge ups the ante by adding a son, Donnie Barker (Chris Bert) who has been away at reform school for a long time. Sue gave Donnie up for adoption 17 years ago and has worn that albatross ever since. Now he is free to stay for a Christmas visit, and Sue is about to jump out of her skin because she knows on some level that this is not going to work. The son with whom she wants to reconcile and the man she loves are not going to get along.
Next door there is another kettle of unsettled issues. Vince and Claire Brinkman (John Pankow and Victoria Mack) are an ill-matched unhappy couple. Claire fights being trapped in her marriage by seducing whoever is in arm’s reach, and Vince heads straight for the vodka. They are leading parallel lives without a heart’s beat between them.
Inge takes these five people, puts them in a cocktail shaker and shakes the hell out of them. When they emerge they are bedraggled, or lost, or hopeless or worse, they have turned into the worst part of themselves.
Inge does this with a writing style that suits the setting and that needs to be accommodated by the actors, or else this play sounds like it was being recited and not felt. The latter is what happens in this production, with the exception of Mr. Pankow. Theses actors don’t appear to be connected to the deep dark core about which Inge is writing – and I don’t mean to suggest that that connection is easily achieved. It is, in this case, epic and on a scale as enormous as O’Neill, or Hellman, or Pinter. Inge grabs life by the throat, and in some way wants us to feel the suffocation that hangs over these people and the iconic tragedy that is theirs.
This production does not get us where it is meant to – right in the gut. Ms. Thompson’s direction, as well as most of the performances, are flat and without risk. This is a play that demands flying without a net. It requires the bravery of free-fall. Lacking that, the writing is still vibrant, but it is alone on the stage.
I am an admirer of TACT, and was surprised that this production didn’t live up to the bar they have consistently set and raised.
NATURAL AFFECTION – By William Inge; directed by Jenn Thompson; sets by John McDermott; lighting by M. L. Geiger; costumes by David Toser; sound by Toby Algya; fight direction by Unkle Dave’s Fight-House; wig design by Robert-Charles Vallance; production stage manager, Jack Gianino; general manager, Christy Ming-Trent. Presented by TACT/The Actors Company Theater, Scott Alan Evans, Cynthia Harris and Ms. Thompson, co-artistic directors. At the Beckett Theater at Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street, Clinton, (212) 239-6200, telecharge.com. Through Oct. 26. Running time: 2 hours.
WITH: Tobi Aremu (Gil/Party Guest), Alec Beard (Bernie Slovenk), Chris Bert (Donnie Barker), Eve Bianco (Religious Woman/Party Guest), Kathryn Erbe (Sue Barker), Victoria Mack (Claire Brinkman) and John Pankow (Vince Brinkman).