By Sarah Downs
The Father, by August Strindberg, is one of those taut, intelligent, passionately restrained pieces of writing that delves deeply into the human heart, and then tears it out. It is by definition high stakes theater. Insanity, betrayal, desire, free will, seduction, deceit, self-doubt, fear, paternity, feminism, childhood, love – take your pick. The material is so juicy! Unfortunately, in this production by the August Strindberg Repertory you would never know it.
The play starts slowly, with the Captain (Brad Fryman) and the local pastor (Gabe Bettio), distressed by the fact that the Captain’s orderly Happy (Tyler Brown) has gotten a local girl pregnant, trying to determine what should be done. A discussion of Happy’s misdeeds leads to the topic of paternity. If he cannot actually prove the child is his, Happy has no responsibility to care for it. It’s the eternal ‘get out of jail free’ card that has been played over and over again, in every decade, in every culture.
The flip side, of course, is the fear that same ambiguity inspires, generating man’s resentment of a woman’s de facto control over family lineage. After all, a woman always knows a child is hers, but a man (well, a paranoid man) can never be sure. As the Captain says later in the play, “A man is born of woman but no woman is born of man.” All of the action centers around this conflict. It is a question that has no answer, and yet we continue to beat our heads against the wall trying to find one.
The Captain starts obsessing about paternity and the future of his beloved daughter Bertha (Bailey Newman). He works himself into an untenable state of anxiety and seeks advice of the lugubrious Doctor Ostermark (Daniel Lugo). Unfortunately, the Doctor has been secretly plotting with the Captain’s wife Laura (Natalie Menna) to have the Captain committed to an asylum.
The combination of pauses you could drive a truck through, an extraordinarily low level of energy, and complete lack of direction dooms this production from the first moments. It’s as if the actors are sleepwalking through the material. The exception is Jo Vetter as Margaret, the Captain’s childhood nurse. She is the only person who knows how to stand still, move with decision, or speak audibly. Bailey Newman as Bertha has youthful energy, but nowhere to go with it. For the rest, it’s in one ear and out the other. None of them has any skin in the game.
The only real blocking any of the actors has is to go over to the drinks cart and get a whiskey or a glass of wine. As a result, almost every actor finds himself downstage left frequently, pouring yet another glass. This is one drunk family.
The Father‘s is both timeless and timely. Its relevance to current events is almost eerie, as masculine fear and resentment of women have led us backward in time politically and, hopefully, forward to a greater understanding of the sexes. I wish the Strindberg Repertory had grabbed this opportunity to go for it and explore that connection.
The Father by August Strindberg, translated from Swedish and directed by Robert Greer; adapted by Natalie Menna and Brad Fryman; with Brad Fryman, Gabe Bettio, Tyler Brown, Daniel Lugo, Bailey Newman, Natalie Menna and Jo Vetter; Janet Mervin, costume design; Gilbert “Lucky” Pearto, lighting design; Andy Evan Cohen, sound design. At the Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street (between Bowery and Lafayette, East Village), NYC; November 14th to December 1st; Tickets $20; Students (under 30) and seniors (over 62) $15; running time 2 hours, including intermission. Box office: SMARTTIX, 212-868-4444; www.smarttix.com. Company’s website: www.StrindbergRep.com.