Let's start with "ambitious": Any play that concerns four generations of one family over a period of 100 years is biting off a lot of exposition. Now add "star-studded": The play, which opened last night at the New York Theatre Workshop, boasts a cast headed by Tony-winner Cherry Jones and including such other luminaries of stage and screen as Martha Plimpton, Peter Frechette, Jessica Hecht, and Jeff Weiss. Finally, like the family it follows, you can also call the play "dysfunctional." But, also like that family, Flesh and Blood survives its failures. By the end of the evening, in fact, it has fully triumphed over its flaws.
During the first act, which seems very much like a Lifetime TV miniseries set adrift on a raft called Off-Broadway, there's little reason to hope that the play will end so well. That raft founders in clichés and threatens to sink in plot complications. Events happen quickly. Characters are simply sketched-in, and we can only hope that we'll learn more -- and care more -- about them later. Among many other things, we discover that Constantine Stassos (John Sierros) had a horribly poor childhood in Greece. Having emigrated to the U.S., he courts Mary (Cherry Jones), who is desperate to be quit of her family but insists that Constantine promise her "everything." This is postwar America, so anything is possible. He promises. And he delivers -- almost.
In no time at all, Constantine and Mary have three children. The eldest, Susan (Jessica Hecht), is daddy's girl; the middle child, Billy (playwright Gaitens), is a mama's boy; and the baby, Zoe (Martha Plimpton), believes -- at least metaphorically -- that she's a changeling, that a real child was snatched by goblins and she was left in its place. The play explores the dynamics between these five people plus two grandchildren, a godmother, lovers, etc.
As Act I continues, we watch everyone in the family get older but not necessarily wiser. The children become teenagers, then college students, then young married adults. The cracks in the family structure turn to craters as time passes. Susan, like her mother, needs a safe haven outside of her family, so she marries right out of high school. Billy, who discovers his homosexuality while a student at Harvard, has tempestuous fights with his father and threatens to kill him early on. Zoe, the sweetest of the bunch, has an open and curious mind, but the lack of love in her family sends her looking for its replacement in drugs and sex. As for the parents, Constantine has given Mary the success she asked for but not the happiness; he's become an insensitive, distant husband and father. Mary, in denial, finds her refuge in pills and shoplifting. Something's gotta give.
If the first act is soap operatic, the second act is far superior: The play, which until this point has been about plot, now becomes centered on character. We see a family in turmoil, a family that is changing just as America changed during the latter half of the 20th century. The very concept of "family" has evolved dramatically over the last several decades, and Flesh and Blood captures society's lumbering transition in heartbreakingly human terms. Issues of sexuality, AIDS, racism, even child molestation, may be found under the emotional big top of this three-ring circus of a play. And if Hairspray's Harvey Fierstein was last season's drag queen supreme, this year it will be Flesh and Blood's Jeff Weiss as Cassandra, perhaps the most loving (and lovable) character in the show.
Michael Cunningham, who wrote the novel upon which the play is based, is also the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hours, the film version of which earned nine Academy Award nominations. Clearly, Cunningham understands women. The female characters in Flesh and Blood are the best-written of the play by far. The mother and her two daughters are sensational creations. Far less successful is the character of Billy, who presumably represents the author, if not the playwright.
There is one scene in the second act that is everything you want in a play, the kind of scene you come to the theater hoping to experience but rarely find. It occurs when Cherry Jones's character -- neglected, patronized, and shunted aside by her children -- sees her son finally come to her in need of her love and acceptance. What she says in response, and how she says it, will fill your eyes with tears and your heart with hope. The moment is piercingly insightful, dramatically powerful, and performed with so much honest passion that you'll find yourself holding your breath till the end of it.
Cherry Jones can do no wrong here. John Sierros as Constantine gives a ferocious, physical performance; the character's aging throughout the play is skillfully indicated by the actor's body language. Jessica Hecht tosses off comic lines with sharp hooks in them. Martha Plimpton is one of the most underrated actresses in New York, and her work here as both a child and a wounded adult is about as fully realized as any performance could be.
Less effective as a performer is Peter Gaitens. His portrayal of the young Billy, in particular, makes the character seem almost retarded rather than simply a kid. Gaitens did a better job in adapting the novel than in performing in his play. On the other hand, the versatile Peter Frechette as all the gay men in Billy's life is a hot and cold running font of talent. Jeff Weiss's Cassandra, whether in full drag regalia or in "toned down" costuming, is equally funny and poignant. In other supporting roles, Airrion Doss, Sean Dugan, and Patricia Buckley offer controlled yet dynamic performances.
Flesh and Blood runs three hours and 20 minutes with one intermission, but time races by -- particularly in the second act. Be forewarned that the opening scene will not likely make sense to you (unless you've read the novel) until it is repeated at the end of the play and its meaning is revealed. Thanks for the swift pacing goes to director Doug Hughes; he also takes full advantage of Christine Jones's smartly suggestive set design, which includes trees and the beginnings of a house, not to mention a stairway to heaven. All told, this is an important play about the changing face of the American family.