Relatively early on in Tony Kushner’s epic study of despair, Adam (Thom Marriott, loving and defeated as required) can just be heard describing Empty, his ex-wife (a rainbow of emotions unleashed by Kelli Fox)—who has apparently switched sides to the realm of Lesbos—as “doomed…and beautiful.” Coming just after a heated bit of post-divorce, basement nooky—and with her partner, Maeve (Diana Donnelly most convincingly expectant) expecting their first child—Kushner concisely sets the dramatic table for a litany of doom and beauty over the next three hours.
(The Marcantonio family being well-rounded out by Steven Sutcliffe as slave-to-beauty, Pill and his long-suffering partner Paul (Andre Sills quaffing the elixir of outrage, pomposity and defeat to great effect) while the “baby” of the siblings, Vito, is brought to very angry life thanks to Gray Powell’s delivery skills, leaving his wife Sooze in the very capable hands of Jasmine Chen who manages hysteria and calm like the adult children who swarm around her.)
Beauty comes in a variety of forms: male hustler, Eli (Ben Sanders brings spot-on honesty to the pivotal, not-in-the-family role), readily beguiles his clientele with his physique and charms; Maeve’s end-of-term pregnancy provides the welcome glow of new life into the equation of life and death; Clio (Fiona Reid marvellously balancing all of the family rivalries that near-constantly swirl though brother Gus Marcantonio’s (Jim Mezon) Brooklyn Brownstone to which his forbears “escaped” after planning/funding the death of Italian King Umberto I in 1900), offers the simple beauty of deeply held belief. And the unequivocal love of wanted death, brought openly and honestly to the Clinton Street home by Michelle (Julie Martell), the Angel of Mercy who provides all of the tools required for a beauteous self-inflicted passing: painless, efficient and oddly dignified.
But it’s the avalanche of doom that gives the play its power, passion and purpose, even as copious amounts of humour—not a little bit of it black—provide the necessary respite from difficult situations and choices and, consequently, lure the audience back after both intermissions.
Leading the grief parade is the 72-year-old patriarch’s failed suicide bid (wrist slashing gone amuck) which incites Gus’ spinster sister, three children along with their significant others (past or present) and alluring concubine back to the nest (Mom having died long ago in childbirth). Now the determined senior strongly declaims to one and all that his next attempt at abandoning life for a better place will end in triumph.
The various—largely explosive—family meetings are expertly staged by Eda Holmes who truly understands Kushner’s desire to have the clan quickly drop their gloves and fill the air with anything-goes shouting matches. The result is astonishingly real: most of the lines are lost in the cacophony of everyone talking at once (recently seen/heard in Top Girls, cross-reference below). Nonetheless, a few zingers manage to find their way into consciousness and—not surprisingly—unmasking a few hidden-away secrets in the awful light of day with disastrous effects.
Gus’ real complaint may well be more universal than most would care to believe: after a life-long career in [insert the occupation—in this case a union organizer for longshoreman and their brothers], the bitter realization that nothing at all has really been accomplished and—even worse—the required compromise to obtain what was touted as a victory actually did more harm than good, combine to render an entire life’s work useless at best.
Personal defeats of this magnitude have driven more than a few to early graves and encouraged others—who feel they’ve nothing left to live for—to horrific acts of violence, carnage and degradation that—temporarily—salves the unrelenting feelings of doom and gloom and make death seem like bliss of the highest order.
Families caught in the throes of a loved one who wants to end it all rather than struggle on before dying with whatever scrap of dignity might be left, all too often resort to some sort of out-of-sight, out-of-mind institutionalization of the tortured soul (mentally, physically or frequently both)—effectively prolonging the agony for everyone.
Kushner knows this only too well and manages to find a fitting “solution” from one who totally understands his part of the bargain.
What would anyone pay for a moment of rapture most assuredly like no other? More importantly, who could throw the first stone at the paid-for catalyst whose job is only complete when the client has been thoroughly satisfied?
In the central role of Gus, Mezon brings yet another meaning to the accolade “superb.” Whether struggling with his own demons or the calamities of those around him, his performance is an unforgettable testament as to how some actors can slip into the skin of their character and bring the audience into their world, never letting them go till all is said, done, or—compellingly—left to the imagination. JWR