Review by Tulis McCall
I nearly needed a chart to follow this play. Oh, wait, there was one! Yes siree an actual family tree in the program. Notes in the program are always a bad sign to me, because it means that someone thinks you need a little help in order to understand the play. As it was, I sort of figured things out over the course of the two hours without an intermission that this play runs. And, I DID finally get all the bits together. But jeeze it was a lot of work.
I almost don’t want to give everything away here so that you can work as hard as I did, but there is really nothing for it.
This is the story of five generations stretching from 1975 to 2039, from England to Australia. We begin at the end – sort of – and then bounce around like a chain reaction of ping pong balls through time until we arrive back where we started.
In 2039 the world may be coming to an end. It is raining like blazes and has been doing so for an eternity. So much rain is falling that it does not rain cats and dogs, in this play we go one better: it rains fish. Just one though. The fish lands at the feet of Gabriel York, the close to last member of this family tree as he prepares to meet his son for the first time in 15 years. Life being the soggy desolate thing that it is, he has nothing to serve his son in his very clean but dingy apartment.
The fish becomes a through line for the rest of the evening as the time slides out from under us and reaches around corners. The fish of the present is whole but the fist of the past is an unending pot of soup from which everyone takes nourishment. One by one they appear and tag their patches of life on the plot line. In an unusually twist – thank you very much – the family lines we follow are maternal. And the generations’ ages are not lined up like kewpie dolls.
We go back to London in 1988 where the older Elizabeth (Mary Beth Hurt) is in stilted conversation with her son Gabriel Law (Will Rogers) who will be father to Gabriel York. We spin slowly into the younger Elizabeth (Kate Blumberg) performing historical gymnastics with her husband Henry (Richard Topol) because they cannot speak the truth. Nobody much can in this story. We float ahead 50 years to Australia and meet the older Gabrielle York, mother to our first character (see what I mean about needing a chart?) who is succumbing to a life of regret even though she is married to Joe, (Rod McLachlan ) a wonderful man who adores her. Then we swoop back thirty years to 1988 again to see the moment of meeting of the young Gabrielle (Susan Pourfar) and the very same bloke who was having dinner with his mother.
Thereafter the story is more of a ballet than a linear tale, with the characters sipping in and out of our sight and each others’ stories. It is a warp and woof of family hopes, memories, disappointments and survival. As father and son finally meet, the ancestors assemble at the table in a tableau visible only to us that made me wish I could have such an assembly. It is a subtle and breathtaking moment that neatly stitches this sprawling tale together.
The performances are quite wonderful in this ensemble, especially Patricia Clark (star of the overrated Light in the Piazza) whose failing grip on life is at once specific and poignant. The only drawback to the evening was the accents that were as varied as the characters. I know the Australian accent is difficult, but none of the characters nailed it – so the confusion as to who was who was made even greater. On the other hand the design and staging of the play were nothing short of extraordinary. The slow set revolves revealed the worlds within worlds that Andrew Bovell is honoring with a laser-like pen and the use of one table and one stove grounded us over the decades that flew by.
This is a saga of an ordinary family told with extraordinary care. It made me work to keep up, which at first I didn’t like. But after a bit I got used to the effort, and left with an altered view of my own heritage. This play delivers the gift that is theatre – magic that sticks to your bones.
"Fitfully moving but diagrammatic play."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
"The show feels gratuitously cryptic.
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"Some very capable actors are mired in this claptrap, .., further subverted by the dreadful direction of David Cromer."
John Simon for Bloomberg
"A sterling ensemble and sturdy direction by David Cromer make this dark, pseudo-Greek tragedy worth your time."
David Sheward for Back Stage
"Bovell (Playwright) makes mysteries that are provocative and even more entertaining"
Michael Kuchwara for Associated Press
"Weighty stuff, a work of great sorrow and beauty."
David Rooney for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...