Steven Pasquale and George Grizzardin Beautiful Child(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Steven Pasquale and George Grizzard
in Beautiful Child
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Beautiful Child is disturbing. It is also extremely well written, acted, and directed. Nicky Silver's new play, now receiving its world premiere at the Vineyard Theatre, unfolds like a well-crafted mystery. However, while the crime is revealed early on, the tension and suspense comes from watching how the characters respond to it and to each other.

It is impossible to discuss the production without revealing some crucial plot details; so, if you like to be surprised, stop reading here and head to the theater. Just don't bring the kids, as the subject matter is not suitable for young audiences. The narrative centers on Harry (George Grizzard) and his wife Nan (Penny Fuller). Their marriage is all but dead. Harry is having an affair with his secretary, Delia (Alexandra Gersten Vassilaros) -- an affair that Nan describes as "past cliché and into archetype." Enter their adult son Isaac (Steven Pasquale) who is in trouble and wants to come home to live with his folks. Isaac shares with them news of a passionate love affair. His parents are excited to hear about it -- until Isaac reveals that the object of his affection is an eight-year-old boy.

The play is similar in spirit to Edward Albee's The Goat. Both works deal with a sexual preference that falls outside the norm of acceptable human behavior. Like Albee's protagonist, Isaac is unrepentant of the actual affair; he is just afraid of the consequences once his secret is out. As played by Pasquale, Isaac is a handsome, sensitive young man. He is not a stereotypical monster or an obviously sick sexual predator. The character's sympathetic portrayal, expertly rendered by the understated Pasquale, heightens the dilemma at the heart of the play and makes conventional solutions to the problem difficult.

Director Terry Kinney, one of the founders of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, seems to have an affinity for thematically dark material. As an actor, he was magnificent in the brooding Broadway production of Sam Shepard's Buried Child several years ago; his direction of the 2001 Tony Award winning revival of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was similarly grim and menacing. As with those works, Kinney's production of Beautiful Child exposes the raw and passionate emotional undertones of the play. The pacing is taut, easing only for necessary moments of comic relief or thoughtful reflection. Scenes that could easily slide into melodrama in a less competent director's hands are instead poignant and meaningful.

Kinney's job has been made easier thanks to a top-notch cast led by Grizzard and Fuller. Grizzard has the uncanny ability to convey volumes with a murmured word or dismissive gesture. Fuller is likewise masterful and her physical reaction to the revelation of Isaac's secret is breathtaking. Her back straightens, lips parting in horror. The tension embedded in the moment is almost unbearable, the silence deafening until Fuller breaks it with a whispered, "Oh, God."

The technical elements of the production complement the play. Foremost among them is the sound design and original music of Obadiah Eaves; at times whimsical, at other moments eerie and ethereal, it sets the tone for several of the scenes. The lighting design of David Lander emphasizes contrasts, with slow fades to black offset by sharp increases in brightness. Richard Hoover's tasteful set design and Michael Krass's costumes are also effective.

Despite its discomfiting subject matter, Beautiful Child is quite funny. Most of the humor is character-driven rather than easily tossed off one-liners. Silver also utilizes richly poetic language and fourth-wall-breaking asides to the audience. A bit of magical realism creeps in with the appearance of an important character in Nan's dreams and the physical manifestation of Isaac's childhood psychiatrist, who incongruously appears and interacts with the other characters. (Both roles are played by Kaitlin Hopkins).

Beautiful Child is quite different from Silver's previous work. It demonstrates a willingness to experiment that pays off in a richly theatrical, complex play that is certain to spark some interesting conversations as audiences leave the theater.