The Public Theater
Through May 4
A remarkable performance from Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn, and benevolent direction from Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, combine to make the world premiere of "The Little Flower of East Orange" -- a play by Stephen Adley Guirgis -- a rewarding Off-Broadway event.
A memory play, "Little Flower" delves into the chaotic relationships among elderly, ailing Therese Marie (Burstyn); her angry, alcoholic son, Danny (Michael Shannon); and Danny's impassioned sister, Justina (the excellent Elizabeth Canavan). Set mostly in a Bronx hospital, where Therese Marie has been transported following a horrific accident, "Little Flower" is that all-too-common item, an American drama about a dysfunctional family. But Guirgis ("Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train") generally writes rich, humor-laden scenes, and Burstyn ("Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore") graces his play with the sort of nuanced characterization that playwrights dream about.
Indeed, Burstyn's Therese Marie is both awful and sympathetic: a venomous martyr. Abused by the men in her life, beginning with her father (Howie Seago) in East Orange, NJ, she has learned to wield her own brand of emotional control over her son and daughter. The hair may be white, the body broken, but humor, resilience and scotch help her endure, to engender fury as well as love.
Burstyn's voice catches every tint of this character's emotional life. And despite being restricted to a bed for most of the 2-hour-and-15-minute production, the actress finds sundry ways to use her hands, tilt her head, and shift her body to convey Therese Marie's cruel, affectionate or clever responses.
Burstyn's is not the only fine performance, for Hoffman ("Capote") is an actor's director who guides his cast to flesh out characters, take chances and fully play the scenes. Tall, hulking Shannon has the intensity of a young John Malkovich; David Zayas brings a bracing comic edge to a compassionate hospital aide; Canavan adroitly balances steel and hysteria during Justina's fights with her mother.
Hoffman is less successful at reining in Guirgis's script, which is burdened with exposition at both the beginning and the end. A kind of subplot involving the depressed son (Sidney Williams) of an unseen woman who shares Theresa's hospital room feels unnecessary.
But Hoffman keeps the pace lively, assisted by Narelle Sissons' minimal, smoothly moving set and Japhy Weideman's precise, subtle lighting.
Best of all, Hoffman brings us Burstyn's triumphant performance.
The Little Flower of East Orange
Presented by the LAByrinth Theater Company, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Co-Artistic Director
And the Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director
Playwright: Stephen Adley Guirgis
Director: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Scenic Design: Narelle Sissons
Costume Design: Mimi O'Donnell
Lighting Design: Japhy Weideman
Composer & Sound Design: David Van Tieghem
Therese Marie: Ellen Burstyn
Aunt Margaret/Justina/Nurse 2: Elizabeth Canavan
Magnolia/Nurse 1/Pope John XXIII: Liza Colon-Zayas
Detective Baker/Jimmy Stewart/Father Lander/Orderly: Arthur French
Nadine/Cathleen: Gillian Jacobs
Dr. Shankar: Ajay Naidu
Francis James: Howie Seago
Danny: Michael Shannon
David Halzig/Plainclothes Detective/Surgeon 1/Bobby Kennedy/Uncle Barney: Sidney Williams
Espinosa/Surgeon 2: David Zayas