Gordon Clapp, Ethan Hawke, and Ann Dowd
in Blood From a Stone
(© Monique Carboni)
Gordon Clapp, Ethan Hawke, and Ann Dowd
in Blood From a Stone
(© Monique Carboni)
Plays don't get more brutal -- for both the characters and audiences -- than Tommy Nohilly's Blood From a Stone, now being presented by The New Group at Theatre Row. Directed with an astute matter-of-factness by Scott Elliott and performed with electrifying ferocity, this unflinching portrait of familial dysfunction sets theatergoers reeling in the most satisfying of ways.

The play begins with Margaret (Ann Dowd) and her adult son Travis (Ethan Hawke) performing the most mundane of tasks: folding laundry. Yet even as they undertake this common task, one becomes aware that this is an uncommon family. Invectives fly and tantalizing indications of a rift between Margaret and her husband are exposed. There's something that's simultaneously heartwarming and blood-curdling to the interaction between mother and son, and, to the credit of writer, director, and performers, this intricate dichotomy is maintained for nearly the entirety of the production.

Travis has come up to the family home in Connecticut (grimly decorated in dingy mustard yellows and avocado greens of a bygone era in Derek McLane's scenic design) to say goodbye to his folks before heading west -- and to check in on his gambling addicted brother Matt (Thomas Guiry), who just happens to also be in the throes of an extramarital affair with an equally married woman. Before the play has ended, the extents of this younger man's excesses, which reach far beyond anything his family might have imagined, are revealed.

Interestingly, there seems to be almost a hereditary gene for infidelity in the clan. During the course of the play, Travis has a hookup with married neighbor and former flame Yvette (a marvelous cameo from Daphne Rubin-Vega). Meanwhile, he, Matt and their sister Sarah (brought to life vividly in a single scene by Natasha Lyonne), bemoan their dad's ambiguous friendship with a woman named Dolores, while the foul-mouthed and hot-tempered Margaret seems to have her own special someone on the side.

And then, there are the family's dependencies. Beyond Matt's gambling, there's Travis' fondness for his mom's pain medications (which he's constantly swiping) and bigoted father Bill (Gordon Clapp) suffers from a severe addiction to anger.

What's perhaps most remarkable about the work are the surprising insights into the warmth and humanity that lives underneath the characters' flaws and cruelty, which makes it all too clear why Hawke's deftly crafted and nuanced Travis finds it so difficult to distance himself from them. Dowd, a spitfire throughout, displays it when Margaret shares a silent exchange with Travis as he opens a comic Christmas card from her "friend" Jerry. Theatergoers witness this side of the character later in the play, too, when she attempts to make amends with Matt, a heartbreaking man-child in Guiry's careful turn.

Similarly, Clapp gives life not only to Bill's affection (however backward) for his eldest son when he comes home with ice cream after one of their knockdown drag out fights, but also to the man's accelerating fragility as he approaches his golden years. It's remarkable to watch as a sense of confusion crosses Clapp's face as Bill attempts to remember the name of a soda shop the family visited when the children were young.

Blood From a Stone can feel more than a little over-extended during parts of its lengthy first act, but theatergoers should remain patient with the piece. There is a cumulative effect to the work that haunts well after the play has ended.