Yvonne Woods and Tim Daly in Henry Flamethrowa
(Photo © George McLaughlin)
Yvonne Woods and Tim Daly in Henry Flamethrowa
(Photo © George McLaughlin)
One can easily understand why producers are interested in John Belluso's drama Henry Flamethrowa: It sounds as if it's been inspired by the headlines. A few years ago, when the play was written and subsequently had its world premiere at the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island, it undoubtedly attracted attention because it deals with a supposed miracle that tends to emerge every so often in predominantly Catholic communities, one in which a young girl is apparently imbued with healing powers after being visited by the Holy Mother. Now, Henry Flamethrowa is of further interest because the girl, Lilja, is on life support -- a situation that prompts thoughts of the Terri Schiavo case.

Michael and Victoria Imperioli (the latter is also the show's set and costume designer) call their 60-seat Off-Broadway theater Dante Studio, and Dante also figures prominently in Belluso's play, which is currently having its New York premiere there. One character is repeatedly seen poring over the Renaissance poet's elegant terza rima, so this could be yet another explanation for Henry Flamethrowa's arrival in NYC here and now.

The ingredients of the play hold an instant fascination. They're "loosely" taken from what Belluso says is a true story, although he doesn't specify which true story in any of the press materials. Peter Rhamelower (Tim Daly), a grieving widower, tends to his severely impaired daughter Lilja while his son Henry (Jake Smith) sends letters to Satan in which he threatens to pull the plug on his sister's life line. (Henry signs his volatile missives with the surname "Flamethrowa," a rhyme for Rhamelower; this has something to do with hip-hop name coining.)

Into this charged situation comes National Public Radio journalist Beth Parker (Yvonne Woods), who assures Peter that she means to repair the damage done to his and his daughter's reputation by a previous reporter. Claiming journalistic objectivity, Beth wonders about the authenticity of Madonna figurines that weep oil on a daily basis, but she's willing to keep an open mind. Peter, taken by Beth's interest, gives Beth access to Lilja and her surroundings while trying to allay his own suspicions about her possibly having ulterior motives. Henry, an intense and precocious teenager, has even stronger doubts about Beth and is determined to get to the bottom of her curiosity even as he plots against his father and the sister whom he loves.

This set-up has great promise but Belluso runs into trouble on the follow-through. By the time he's gotten around to exposing a few disillusioning truths about the characters, his play has devolved into something of a shambles. He introduces certain situations but then fails to develop them. (Is he getting at a romance between Peter and Beth?) He leaves questions unanswered. (What is with Peter's impulsively amorous behavior?) And his revelations are predictable: At fade-out, he rather speedily resolves Henry's psychological hang-ups but leaves hanging those of Peter and Beth.

Lurking somewhere within Henry Flamethrowa is a drama about father/son conflict. At one point, Henry has angered Peter enough that the latter attacks the former. (This calls to mind the fact that Ross McDonald -- whom nobody seems to read anymore -- titled one of his novels The Instant Enemy in reference to cross-generational conflict). It's common for a father's declaration of "day" to be followed by a son's "night," for papa's "white" to be countered by son's "black." The only difference in Henry Flamethrowa is that it's a case of Peter saying "God" and Henry replying "Satan." Maybe the Freudian father/son struggle over the mother -- with, perhaps, the sainted Lilja acting as surviving surrogate -- is the core of the play that Belluso wants to write but hasn't yet gotten to.

It would be a pleasure to report that the cast members, as directed by Nick Sandow, do their best to maximize the material's potential; but, of the three players, only Jake Smith fully connects with the troubled character he's portraying. Smith has the kind of eyes that see right through people, which is what Henry does throughout the play. He also has the sort of hyper-concentrated manner that throws people off-balance, another thing that Henry does throughout the play. On the other hand, both Tim Daly ( who possesses the boyish good looks that can be a manifestation of the Peter Pan syndrome) and Yvonne Woods (long-necked as a swan and similarly awkward on dry land) have difficulty figuring out how to limn their roles. Perhaps that's because Belluso hasn't given them enough to work with; Daly, in particular, often sports an abashed expression that seems to have more to do with his own uncertainty as an actor than with Peter's ambiguous behavior.

Early in the play, Henry tells Beth that he believes the problem with education today is uncomfortable schoolroom seats. He insists that learning should be done in comfort and confides that he brings pillows to class so he can cushion himself. Consequently, he's known to the school bullies as "Pillow Boy." It's curious that this character should show up in the same season during which The Pillowman is stalking the Broadway stage -- but that's as far as the coincidence goes. Whereas Martin McDonagh's play digs so deep that it almost emerges in China, Belluso barely scratches the intriguing surface of his subject and his characters.