All happy families are alike; each unhappy family hears explosions in the living room every so often.
So suggests “Cruelty to Animals,” a new play by Jerry Lieblich ’11: the first half hour of this living room drama is punctuated every so often by the sound of shattering glass and screams. We are to understand, from this effect, that one of the characters has experienced a trauma in the past. It is, I think, supposed to be a surreal touch – but, like the other surreal touches in the play, it is not quite unfamiliar enough to pass from the confusing into the profound.
“Cruelty to Animals,” on the whole, is confusing, and not profound. It’s also too long. And it is hard to watch the spectacularly talented cast, under the deft direction of Rachel Marcus ’11, struggle against the script.
There is not much in the way of plot: Ron Blackburn (Hunter Wolk ’12) has just come home to his wife, Anne (Laurel Durning Hammond ’14), with a broken leg, after a long and mysterious sojourn abroad (okay, I’ll give it away, he was fighting in “the war”). Anne has the emotional maturity, and the volubility, of a prepubescent girl; Ron is as cold, and as expressive, as a lamppost in December. Anne has planned him a coming-home party, Ron does not want this, they yell at each other and she cries and they apologize. Anne wants a bunny, Ron does not want this, they yell at each other and she cries and they apologize. Anne eats a cookie – I am not kidding – Ron does not want this, they yell at each other and she cries and they apologize. There is also a nurse in the house (Ryan Bowers ’14). (Ron does not want him, etc.) Eventually, Anne’s father arrives (Ron etc.).
Durning-Hammond deserves a Tony, or a Purple Heart. Her character, like all the others, draws heavily from the palette of stereotypes set down a few decades ago by Raymond Carver to the jubilation of young writers the world over. Women are emotionally needy; men don’t want their wives to be fat. Women babble; men smash things to express feelings. But Durning-Hammond makes a valiant effort to render Anne as three-dimensional as possible. She knows exactly where and how to direct her eyes at all times – she stares into space, beaming, as she rattles off (intentionally) bad jokes and (intentionally?) worse philosophy (sample: “Comics are supposed to make sense. That’s why you read the newspaper”); she stares into space, pouting, as she prepares to cry; and even when she looks into Ron’s eyes, you can tell, from the slant of her eyebrows, just how much she craves approval.
As Anne’s aging father Maurice, Charles Gillespie DIV ’12 is a juggernaut, for the brief time he appears on stage. Anne is a fount of misplaced tenderness (we know this, because, as Ron explains, “You keep doing things I haven’t asked you for”); Maurice, on the other hand, is a whirlwind of obscenity, dementia, and unpredictable bile. Maurice is, by far, the most original and interesting character, and Gillespie is worthy of the role, creating, through voice and body, a raging manchild that you are very glad not to be related to. Wolk, for his part, maintains a stiff, smoldering gaze for most of the show – very appropriate – until the end, when it melts into something just a hair closer to Anne’s signature imploring look – a magnificently subtle transformation.
“Cruelty to Animals” should be about a quarter as long as it is, with half the characters and none of the stereotypes. Lieblich has great sympathy for his characters, if not quite as much for his audience.