Christopher Hurt and Pamela Sabaugh
in The Rules of Charity
(© Carol Rosegg)
Christopher Hurt and Pamela Sabaugh
in The Rules of Charity
(© Carol Rosegg)
Prior to his unfortunate death last year at the age of 36, John Belluso was in the process of building a promising career with plays such as Pyretown and Henry Flamethrowa. The playwright -- who used a wheelchair from the age of 13 -- frequently dealt with issues of disability in his work. So it seems particularly fitting that the New York premiere of The Rules of Charity is being presented by Theater by the Blind, a company composed of both visually impaired and sighted theater professionals. Unfortunately, while the play itself is often quite powerful, the production is decidedly uneven.

Rules centers around the relationship between Monty (Christopher Hurt), a middle-aged man afflicted with cerebral palsy that has confined him to a wheelchair, and his 33-year-old daughter Loretta (Pamela Sabaugh), who takes care of him. They live in a tenement building, subsisting on the disability benefits he receives from the government, which barely cover the rent. Loretta has grown resentful of Monty, and is at times violent towards him. Yet, she loves him.

The father-daughter bond is further strained by the romantic entanglements each becomes involved in. Loretta takes up with Horace (Brian Bielawski), whom she meets outside of a bar. Meanwhile, Monty is lovers with the building's janitor, L.H. (Nicholas Viselli), a man uncomfortable with his sexuality.

L.H. introduces Monty to Paz (Hollis Hamilton), a filmmaker and the daughter of the building's landlord. She is shooting a documentary entitled "The Rules of Charity" and wants to include Monty's story within it. While he initially dismisses her as "a politically correct lunatic," she offers him enough money for him to concede to an interview.

The play delves into several highly provocative issues with some degree of complexity, such as the contradictory emotions that arise out of being a caretaker, the intersection of gay sexuality with disability, and the Catch-22 of a disabled person needing to stay unemployed to receive Medicare benefits, but then being unable to support himself. Belluso's writing demonstrates a keen intelligence, providing a historical perspective on the ways the disabled have been treated over the centuries, while never losing sight of the contemporary problems that the characters face. Several of the passages have a grand, lyrical quality to them, reminiscent of the passionate monologues penned by writers such as Clifford Odets and August Wilson.

On the downside, while the work is advertised as "a dark comedy," Ike Schambelan's direction fails to bring out much of the play's humor. As a result, it feels a bit leaden and Belluso's more melodramatic touches come across as woefully heavy-handed.

Hurt presents a fully-rounded portrayal of Monty, capturing the character's capacity for pettiness, love, anger, tenderness, and depression. His physical characterization of Monty's disability is so convincing that it comes as something of a shock during a couple of scene changes where you see him get up quickly from the floor and cross the room without any assistance.

Sabaugh does a fine job with Loretta's quieter moments, such as a first act confession to her sleeping boyfriend about how she is both cruel and good to her father -- unaware that Monty is actually listening in. She is less effective in the more emotional scenes, including the opening of the play in which she towers over her father, whom she has knocked out of his wheelchair.

Bielawski has a quirky charm that enables some of the few moments of levity within the production. He also does a fantastic job with a difficult monologue that has Horace describing a fight he got into at a bar, while also singing an a capella rendition of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." On the other hand, Viselli is rather stiff as L.H. and unable to give much dimension to his portrayal. Hamilton is intermittently effective, but crosses the line into caricature during the sequence when Paz interviews Monty.

Rounding out the cast is Gregg Mozgala, as the narrator. He describes the scenic environment (designed by Bert Scott) and announces important stage directions for any members of the audience who may be visually impaired. This is done in an unobtrusive manner that feels quite organic.

While the production of The Rules of Charity is far from perfect, it's good enough to demonstrate the quality of Belluso's writing -- and to remind us that a great loss occurred when this unique voice in the American theater was silenced so early.