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J. Smith-Cameron offers another finely etched character portrait in David Marshall Grant's muddled domestic drama.

Dan McCabe and J. Smith-Cameron in Pen
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Earlier this season, the formidable J. Smith-Cameron proved that she knew how to dance as well as she can act in Elaine May's After the Night and the Music. Now she's showcasing her terpsichorean abilities again, albeit briefly, in the second act of David Marshall Grant's Pen at Playwrights Horizons. It's an unexpected development, to say the least, since when we meet her character, Helen -- a suburban housewife living in Long Island in 1969 -- she's confined to a wheelchair, suffering from an advanced case of M.S.

As the play begins, it's the Christmas season; but there's little holiday cheer on stage. Helen, a hard-edged, controlling woman, takes out most of her agression on Matt (Dan McCabe), her essentially good-natured teenage son. Matt reacts to his parents' divorce and his mother's illness in such ways as stealing and indulging in continual sarcasm. While Helen wants him to go to a local university, Matt's father, Jerry (Reed Birney), a psychologist and self-help author who barely seems to have grown up himself, is urging the boy to attend his alma mater, USC. Not only does Jerry want to free his son from Helen's clutches, the move would also allow Matt to live near his dad, who is about to marry his much younger girlfriend and move to Los Angeles. A sensitive soul, Matt sees no way to please both his parents and begins to physically exhibit his emotional state, with unforeseen consequences.

It would not be entirely fair to reveal how Helen ends up dancing -- in a seedy New York bar with Jerry, no less -- although it can be said that it's not a flashback sequence. The big trick that Grant has up his sleeve, which occurs at the end of the first act, does transform his quasi-standard domestic drama into something a little more substantive. But it also sacrifices some hard-wrought realism, and as the second act progresses, the play veers farther and farther off course. Indeed, in one pivotal scene, director Will Frears comes dangerously close to hitting the guard rail by suddently shifting the tone of the play too sharply.

Fortunately, Smith-Cameron and Birney hold steady, offering finely etched and often heartbreaking portraits of a pair of damaged souls. Despite all her bitterness, Helen still loves Jerry and has convinced herself that he left her only because she became ill. There are moments, especially in the barroom sequence, when it appears that she may be correct -- and these are devastating to watch. Birney, appropriately dressed in just-this-side-of-hip duds designed by Jenny Mannis, is also impressive in that sequence as we see Jerry being torn between desire and duty. And he gets to deliver the play's best line: "Thank God for women and their second thoughts. Men don't have second thoughts. We just have the first one over and over again."

McCabe, who played another troubled teen earlier this season in The Dear Boy, has the challenging task of holding his own against such seasoned pros, and he rises to their level as often as not. Still, there's something a tad generic about his performance. The fault may lie with the playwright, who has no new insights -- perhaps because there aren't any? -- on what it's like to be a teenager in emotional pain. Though Pen is not structured as a memory play, one can't help wondering if Grant is trying to make sense of some painful episode in his own past. Whether or not that's the case, the story told here is rather odd and not altogether compelling. Still, Grant should consider himself lucky to have found three such accomplished interpreters, for great actors are often mightier than the pen.

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