Sarah Paulson, Jennifer Dundas, and Lily Rabe
in Crimes of the Heart
(© Joan Marcus)
Sarah Paulson, Jennifer Dundas, and Lily Rabe
in Crimes of the Heart
(© Joan Marcus)
Even though it's widely considered to be funny, numerous dramatic events occur in Beth Henley's Pulitzer-Prize-winning 1979 play Crimes of the Heart, which has just been shipped to the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theater, in what turns out to be a production (from the 2007 Williamstown Theatre Festival) that isn't so much acted than overacted. There's a possibly fatal shooting, at least one suicide by hanging as well as a hanged cat, a debilitating stroke, an illicit sexual liaison caught in a private detective's skulking camera, a leg crushed and permanently impaired, paint eaten by a couple of children, wholesale fraud and forgery -- not to mention that the entire population of Hazelhurst, Mississippi is apparently scandalized.

The only problem with the script is that every jolting situation just mentioned unfolds offstage. What happens onstage is that a trio of only-slightly-Chekhovian sisters and a cousin who's quite Chekhovian carry on lengthy, often too-cute-by-half conversations -- two of them while frequently brushing, brushing, brushing their lank blond hair. Henley intends to examine familial dynamics, but shouldn't that study incorporate some dynamism? As for effective "Southern Gothic comedy," it pales besides Steel Magnolias or any entry you want to cite from Carol Burnett's side-splitting "Eunice" series of skits.

Stay-at-home Lenny Magrath (Jennifer Dundas) is in a tizzy because Rebecca, known as "Babe" (Lily Rabe), has put a bullet into her (unseen) abusive husband Zackery's stomach. Lenny's emotional discombobulation -- on her 30th birthday -- is compounded because sister Meg (Sarah Paulson) hasn't been in touch from Hollywood, where she's supposedly establishing a singing career. Not much solace comes to Lenny from cousin Chick Boyle (Jessica Stone), who constantly drops by the Magrath's middle-class kitchen (well designed by Anna Louizos) to lord it over her relations.

Lenny's problems aren't eased when Meg does show up with eyes for former boyfriend Doc Porter (Patch Darragh), the state of whose damaged leg she's responsible for. Conditions give the impression of improving and then worsening when Babe's lawyer, Barnette Lloyd (Chandler Williams) -- who's gotten the desultory young woman released from jail -- looks as if he's building a strong defense case and then is presented with evidence that could knock his case into a cocked hat. Through the suspense that builds on the question of Babe's fate, the women alternately cement familial bonds and reopen old wounds.

But except for one stretch towards the play's end, when Lenny is finally jubilant about reconnecting with the one love of her life, tension is just about the last thing Henley succeeds at creating. Sometimes it completely slackens, as manifested during a moment towards the beginning of act two when so little is transpiring that Lenny blurts, "Hey, I've got an idea...Let's play cards!!" (The two exclamation points are taken directly from the script, further indicating how much Henley is counting on imposed excitement.) The potential game of hearts, which doesn't actually take place, follows both an exchange during which Babe talks protractedly about how she prepares lemonade and a short interlude where the sisters pore over an old photo album.

Perhaps the lack of intrinsic propulsion is the reason Kathleen Turner -- making her directorial debut -- has given the dramedy such a deliberately Suth'un slant. Dundas, flailing away on every speech, delivers one of the fussiest performances a theatergoer is ever likely to encounter. Stone isn't much more contained, although she's possibly suffering a headache brought on by her too-tight wig. Paulson is milder, although she gets carried away during some later scenes, and Williams turns lawyer Lloyd into a master of grand gesticulation. Only Rabe, adding to her reputation as one of the theater's best up-and-comers, and Darragh, limping convincingly as Doc, keep the play's excesses under wraps.

Still, what's on view here is mostly crimes of the art.