December 3, 2016

"This Day Forward" Lacks Momentum

The playwright Nicky Silver sat in a seat in the back of the audience the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw Silver's new play This Day Forward, which is running at the Vineyard Theatre through Dec. 18. But the seat was empty by the start of the second act.

Later over dinner at the venerable Pete's Tavern, which opened in 1864 and prides itself on being the oldest bar in the city, Bill and I speculated about why Silver might have left. It could have been because his show, ostensibly a comedy, drew so few laughs during the first act. Or it might have been that he didn't want to relive the pain of the more dramatic second act.

Silver is known for acerbic family satires that feature unhappily married couples, overbearing and unloving mothers and gay men emotionally damaged by neglectful parents. They all show up in This Day Forward, which opens in a swanky hotel room in 1958. Martin and Irene, a newly married couple still wearing their wedding clothes, are preparing to spend their first night together as man and wife.

Martin interprets Irene's jitters as nervousness about losing her virginity. But she soon confides that the real problem is that she doesn't love him, even though he's handsome, rich and besotted with her. Instead, she's fallen for someone else and called that guy to come and get her.

Hilarity should ensue, especially since Joe Tippett, a master at playing loveable lunks, has been cast as the other man. But everyone else seems, under Mark Brokaw's unsubtle direction, to be trying too hard, almost turning to seek the audience's approval after each funny bit.

There were still a few smiles to be had but that kind of desperation can make even the most supportive theatergoer feel uneasy. More than a few people left at intermission, which meant they missed the more interesting second act.

Nearly five decades have passed when the curtain rises on the sleek apartment of Irene's now-grown son Noah, a stage director looking to get into TV and living with his younger boyfriend, a wannabe actor. Their life is also upset by an unexpected visitor: this time it's Noah's older sister who's insisting that it's his turn to care for their mother, whose Alzheimer's has made her even more abusive to her children than she was during their difficult childhoods with her.

The rest of the act is devoted to Noah's struggle (and the playwright's) to come to terms with his feelings toward his mother. There's nothing wrong with a playwright using his plays to work through his personal problems (if there were, there might be no Eugene O'Neill or Tennessee Williams) but here I felt as though I was getting the unedited notes from one of Silver's therapy sessions.

Noah's efforts do allow Silver to display more empathy toward his parents than he has in his previous works from his 1989 first produced play Fat Men in Skirts, where the character actually rapes his mother, to his 2012 Broadway debut The Lyons (click here to read my review of that one).

But, alas, he's still news at the empathy game, which makes for an awkward time for the audience.  So I wish him well as he tries to resolve his issues with his mother cause it would be nice for him—and for us—to move on.

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