While AIDS is never mentioned in the U.S. premiere of Only the End of the World by the late Jean-Luc Lagarce, its presence is palpable. The author wrote this clearly autobiographical work four years after he was diagnosed with the disease, and he died five years after the play opened to great acclaim in France. In this bleak but supremely honest contemplation of death, a successful man of 34 returns home after a very long absence. Louis (Michael Emerson) tells the audience in his opening monologue that he's going to die within the year; we know it, but his relatives do not.
Though Louis had left home to escape his family, he has come back with the hope of finding solace and peace by reconnecting with his roots. He contemplates telling his family that he's terminally ill, but will he? Can he? The family, we quickly learn, is in turmoil over his return. Resentments that border on hatred are seething just beneath the surface, particularly Louis and his younger brother, Antoine (Stephen Belber). We soon discover that the ties that bind this family together are also strangling them.
In an American play, the stricken brother would return home and the drama would unfold with one of two results. After a family meltdown, our hero would either be embraced and cared for by his kin or he would be rejected and find redemption elsewhere with a family of friends. But this is a French play, so something else is going on here. The dysfunctional family drama is played out in all its force and fury, but there is a sense of intellectual distance to the entire affair. It's not for nothin' that Sarah Lambert has designed the floor of the set as a chessboard: Each player makes his or her moves in long monologues. Even more distancing is the language itself, translated by Lucie Tiberghien. Most of the characters too often exhibit the same odd quirk of speech, all of them constantly correcting their own sentence structure, grammar, choice of words, etc. as they speak. The device is artificial and, mon dieu, it's annoying!
Tiberghien has also directed the piece, sometimes with a powerful sense of combustible heat, but the lengthy monologues keep robbing the play of its energy; actors are forced to react for seemingly endless stretches of time. Fortunately, Tiberghien had the good sense to cast Emerson as the play's nuclear reactor. Watch this actor's face during these long scenes as one character after another accosts him with pages of words; you can all but see the atoms crashing and smashing in his brain. The masterful Emerson radiates Louis's every thought and feeling.
Almost all of the other cast members make the most out of their stilted speeches. Belber as the angry, self-loathing kid brother is as effectively fiery as Emerson is compellingly aloof. Jennifer Mudge is disappointingly one-dimensional as Louis's kid sister, but Katie Firth's performance as Louis's sister-in-law is admirably nuanced. Sandra Shipley is affecting as the mother who understands that she can no longer hope to change her two sons and one daughter.
The play is at its best when Louis is simply talking to the audience. At the top of the second act, he gives a speech about his impending death that is as searing and unsparing as anything you will ever hear. Emerson delivers it with just the right combination of pain and petulance, creating a character that is at once intellectually impressive and altogether human. That speech alone might be reason enough to see the play, which continues at Theatre Three on West 43rd Street through August 24.