Light streams through the window, illuminating the large bed and casting shadows across the actors' faces. It's a literal interpretation of the play's title, The Light Outside. And yet, it doesn't come across as a cheap laugh or a pretentious metaphor. Instead, it sets the mood for this dark, dark comedy-drama about a dysfunctional family.
Under Jim Simpson's masterful direction, Kate Robin's disturbing and lyrical play keeps the audience just slightly off-kilter. The pacing is crisp and, for the most part, quick, with occasional shifts and sustained pauses. Effects such as slide projections announcing scene changes and stage directions also complement the action, set in the home of a privileged New York couple and their two children.
Frank (Robert LuPone) is an alcoholic producer with a 10-year history of flops under his belt. His wife, Judith (Karen Sillas), is still recovering from a nervous breakdown suffered the year before. The couple argues over expenses, broken promises, and embarrassing public behavior. When the subject turns to affairs and divorce, Frank starts to get violent, or perhaps just aroused. He handcuffs his wife to the bed for a frenzied bout of lovemaking, made all the more sad and tragic by Judith's plea to her husband not to stop, but to look at her while he uses her so violently. In walks 12-year-old son Frankie (Chris Messina), who witnesses this kinky primal scene. His attempts to save his mother trigger a heart attack in Frank, who must be rushed to the hospital. This is all in the first act, and the three-act play doesn't slow down from there, especially as it's performed without an intermission.
Robin has written some extraordinarily complex and well-rounded characters; even at their worst, it's still possible to empathize with them. These roles are a dream come true for actors, and the four-person ensemble doesn't squander the opportunity. Sillas is excellent, well-poised, and seemingly strong on the outside while her character's insecurities and past traumas find expression in subtle hand gestures, compulsive smoking, and other non-verbal reactions. LuPone is all swagger in his first scene, somehow managing to retain that characteristic even when bed-ridden and nearly immobile for the rest of the play. Messina can be both funny and vulnerable, despite the horrendous things his character does. Finally, Elizabeth Bunch as daughter Peg captures the fear, uncertainty, love, and shame that makes this seven-year-old the most sympathetic figure in the play, if not necessarily the most tragic.
It should be noted that the children's roles are played by adult actors. Given the themes of the play, which include alcoholism, incest, and suicide, this is no doubt a good thing. Bunch and Messina work well together, creating a believable brother-sister relationship that is complicated by the above-mentioned themes. (Living within this family, it is no wonder that the seven-year old is already in therapy.)
Joel Douek's brilliant sound design underscores the action at key moments. It adds to the tension and contributes to the slightly surreal atmosphere, particularly when a section of the play calls for Latin music to blare outside and Douek instead provides something completely different (but still in keeping with the mood of the production). Kyle Chepulis' set and light design effectively utilizes the strengths of The Flea Theatre's unconventional performance space. The audience is on either side, looking down upon the action, which is played on a wide rectangular stage. Moe Schell's costume design is also right on the mark, especially in the choice of Peg's final outfit, which is perfectly suited to a young girl who has to grow up way too fast.
Despite the serious tone of the play, Robin's script is also extraordinarily funny. A particular gem is a conversation about religion between young Frankie and Peg. The humor makes the drama even more compelling and poignant, and the tragic consequences at the play's end that much more devastating.