Blood From a Stone: Theater Review

Dysfunction doesn't get much messier than in this gritty debut play.

Family is a life sentence in Tommy Nohilly's caustic study, shot through with darkly funny observations and exposed nerves, authenticated in the New Group's production by a tremendous cast working at the top of their game.

A Bronx-born former Marine who grew up in New Britain, Conn., Nohilly wrote Blood From a Stone while in the graduate playwriting program at Columbia. There are thematic echoes of Sam Shepard, and at times the semi-autobiographical play's assessment of the sullied bonds of family seems almost like a working-class response to August: Osage County. But Nohilly's voice draws from an unmistakable well of personal experience.

In addition to the writer's ability to scratch prickly humor out of his characters' infinite failings, what makes the play more engrossing than many grim tracts of blue-collar toxicity is Nohilly's compassion for people he knows and loves despite their endless capacity to hurt one another. Those assets help compensate for the rambling play's under-shaped structure.

Before a word is spoken in Scott Elliott's punchy production, Derek McLane's distressed set tells us plenty about the small-town Connecticut family -- the ratty sofa, the filthy windows, the leaky roof and crumbling ceiling threatening imminent collapse. This is no scene of domestic harmony.

That impression is reinforced the minute Ann Dowd's abrasive but heartbreaking Margaret opens her mouth mid-tirade, spewing complaints about her deadbeat gambler son Matt (Thomas Guiry) and lashing into her husband Bill (Gordon Clapp) like a ballbuster for the ages.

A human pit bull who redefines rage disorder, Bill lives in open warfare with his wife, both of them seeking comfort outside the marriage. Bill's bigoted rants are hilarious, his cure for the world's ills usually involving arson, explosives or torture. But his delusional idea that closeness is still possible with his sons feeds a quietly moving undercurrent.

Nohilly ably demarcates the fragile allegiances within the family. Margaret dotes on her son Travis (Ethan Hawke), supplying him with cash and painkillers when he returns home from New York before taking off cross-country to start fresh. Matt's loyalty leans toward his father, though that doesn't preclude forging Bill's signature as a loan guarantor and leaving him to mop up his debts. Third sibling Sarah (Natasha Lyonne) has largely removed herself from the fray, determined to break the mold with her own family.

Travis is the playwright's stand-in, and Hawke makes him a poignant figure, occasionally flinching but mostly numb to the invective flying by him as he nurses his own wounds. His attempts to make his family see one another as people and not just mutual disappointments are heartfelt but ineffectual.

The playwright shows skill at portraying volatile situations with both emotional investment and a sharp sense of irony, and Elliott's direction echoes that balance.

Nohilly stumbles in the overworked mechanics of his wrap-up. As minor and major catastrophes stack up and behavior turns nastier, the writer's hand reveals itself clumsily compared to the more persuasive naturalism of what's come before. But these are vividly etched characters whose conflicts nonetheless ring true.

Hawke has the most introspective and least showy role, but Travis accrues layers according to the distinct ways in which he interacts with the other characters.

The tough-talking tenderness Sarah shows him in Lyonne's terrific single scene reveals a glimpse into their rocky childhood. And his furtive lovemaking with Yvette, an unhappily married former girlfriend played with touching bravado by Daphne Rubin-Vega, hints ruefully at what might have been.

As the catalyst for the family's meltdown, Guiry projects the puppyish face of someone who lies by necessity, eventually breaking when he's cornered.

But the towering performances are those of Dowd and Clapp, both of them boiling over with so much anger they are radioactive.

Venue: Theatre Row/Acorn Theatre, New York (runs through Feb. 19)
Cast: Gordon Clapp, Ann Dowd, Thomas Guiry, Ethan Hawke, Natasha Lyonne, Daphne Rubin-Vega
Playwright: Tommy Nohilly
Director: Scott Elliott
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Theresa Squire
Lighting designer: Jason Lyons
Sound designer: Bart Fasbender
Presented by the New Group