EmptyLaura Pels Theatre, New York
Through April 13
More than 25 years have come and gone since "Crimes of the Heart" won the Pulitzer for drama. The same quarter-century also witnessed Kathleen Turner's evolution from the ultimate '80s femme fatale to a first-time director.
So can these two long-celebrated entertainment sources merge and triumph in today's theater scene?
Well, both could use a bit more polish, but the play -- and the woman steering its revival -- ultimately hold their own.
For those that don't recall the specifics of Beth Henley's tale (which later became a film with Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek), the story revolves around three adult sisters reuniting in their Mississippi family home in 1974. Unfortunately, the meeting isn't the happiest of occasions.
Mousy Lenny Magrath (Jennifer Dundas) is wistfully marking her 30th birthday as the self-absorbed wannabe singer Meg (Sarah Paulson) arrives from Hollywood. She has grudgingly returned to her roots because their youngest sibling, Babe (Lily Rabe), is in jail for shooting her husband. All of this puts the trio's busybody, scandal-fearing cousin, Chick (Jessica Stone), on the warpath -- and their doorstep.
Plot specifics aside, playwright Henley's strength is her ability to mix humor and heartbreak. While each of the principals has more than her share of chuckle-inducing peccadilloes, the sisters are irrevocably linked by shattered dreams, long-simmering jealousies and the kind of familial love that always will dominate in the end.
However, that love is put to the test as the threesome navigate increasingly dark territory, ultimately involving suicide, spousal abuse, statutory rape, mental illness and stroke-induced comas. Henley's deft touch illustrates how almost any horror can be tinged with wry subtleties.
That's the good news. On the downside, Henley's structuring now seems overly schematic, with characters coming and going -- nevermind the telephone ringing and doors slamming -- with cliched sitcom regularity. In addition, the dialogue sometimes rambles, and Chick's small-town sensibilities appear more one-note than ever.
Such flaws should have been corrected by Turner, who helmed the production in Williamstown, Mass., in the summer. In addition to letting several anachronisms slip by, she also leaves some humor-based scenes threatening to go over the top. Turner demonstrates a far steadier touch as the tone shifts to heavier material, utilizing a measured pace to cleverly accentuate key revelations. Clearly, she also clicked with the cast, most of whom are relative newcomers.
Rabe has the most notable resume (as well as being the daughter of Jill Clayburgh and David Rabe), and her work as Babe deftly twists helplessness around a steely core. To her credit, she seems to be channeling the nuances of Laura Dern from her "Rambling Rose" heyday. Paulson also shines, exuding a natural screen presence as the self-centered, initially thoughtless Meg. Her credible transformation during a calamity-filled evening undeniably resonates.
Sadly, Dundas is more of a mixed bag. Perhaps because of Lenny's shrinking-violet persona, Dundas falls into the trap of mumbling too many lines. Only during the latter scenes does her collection of mannerisms successfully coalesce. Dundas does, however, appear to inspire Stone, whose gift for physical shtick does wonders at lending dimension to a cardboard villainess.
The actors playing the two male characters fail to generate much charisma. Patch Darragh is a lanky lump as a handsome remnant from Meg's romantic past, while Chandler Williams' turn as Babe's lovelorn lawyer goes through the motions without generating any heat. But because the production consistently puts the women front and center, no major harm is done.
Accordingly, "Crimes" still takes shape as a pleasant-enough way to kill 2 1/2 hours despite its dated, now-familiar aspects. As for Turner, if she intends to stay behind the scenes, it looks like she can write her own Act 2.
CRIMES OF THE HEART
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company
Playwright: Beth Henley
Director: Kathleen Turner
Set designer: Anna Louizos
Costume designer: David Murin
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Sound designer/original music: John Gromada
Lenny Magrath: Jennifer Dundas
Meg Magrath: Sarah Paulson
Babe Magrath: Lily Rabe
Chick Boyle: Jessica Stone
Doc Porter: Patch Darragh
Barnette Lloyd: Chandler Williams