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The Little Flower of East Orange

Stephen Adly Gurigis' often-thrilling and beautifully acted family drama still needs some rewriting in order to fully blossom. logo
Ellen Burstyn and Michael Shannon
in The Little Flower of East Orange
(© Monique Carboni)
Oh, can Stephen Adly Guirgis write! Sometimes, lines of dialogue he's imagined flash blindingly from the stage like light reflected on shards of broken glass. He's such an inspired playwright that in his often-thrilling The Little Flower of East Orange, at the Public Theater, he tops everything he's had his characters say with an especially penetrating final line that registers like a prayer's grace at the end of a sermon.

Where Guirgis falls short with this new, not-so-subtly religious play -- a co-production of The Pubic and the LAByrinth Theatre Company -- is in the construction. Under frequent collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman's unsteady direction, the work is so full of ideas that it feels like a second or third draft that needs another pass in order to cohere. It's as if the playwright has thrown on stage everything that's crossed his fertile mind before he's calculated what to focus on and what to eliminate.

The central story is that of a family victimized by the dysfunction of previous generations. Danny (the lacerating and lacerated Michael Shannon), a sometime writer trying to get clean in an Arizona rehab, returns to the Bronx when he learns his mother Therese Marie (Ellen Burstyn, properly crotchety and beautiful) has once again been hospitalized. When he arrives with partner-in-drug-abuse Nadine (the nubile, animated Gillian Jacobs), he's instantly immersed in what seems a long-term mother-son love-hate relationship. Then younger sister Justina (Elizabeth Canavan, playing as if electrically charged) shows up and eventually proves her hysteria is more practical than Danny's uncontrolled filial devotion.

While the volatile trio both cling to and pit themselves against each other, peripheral parties cross their boundary-less boundaries, including male nurse Espinosa (David Zayas in another of his life-force performances), female nurse Magnolia (the always vital Liza Colon-Zayas), and no-nonsense physician Dr. Shankar (Ajay Naidu). Forlornly visiting his ailing mother in the curtained-off bed next to Therese Marie's is David Halzig (Sidney Williams). And there's Therese's late father Francis James (Howie Seago), an abusive but doting dad, who continually invades his daughter's conflicted memories.

As Paula Vogel did in How I Learned to Drive, Guirgis clearly wants to examine the psychological ins-and-outs that enable a family member to damage a child at the same time as enriching his or her young life. Additionally, Guirgis aims to put on blatant display the confusion a child feels when dealing with overwhelming mixed messages.

His intentions are made particularly clear in a Eugene O'Neill-like second-act scene when Danny tangles over the ever-intrusive and gut-wrenching past with Therese, who can invoke the chilling martyred-parent utterance, "I was only thinking of you" at will. But the scene is so long that it begins to try the audience's patience. Guirgis needs to trim it drastically -- and since it contains information he might have supplied earlier, he probably should reconsider where the sequence best belongs in his narrative.

Moreover, he might rethink the function served by some of the subsidiary characters, most notably the sex-hungry Nadine. Other than bolstering the depiction of Danny's wild ways, what purpose does she serve? Indeed, Guirgis sends her Amtraking back to Arizona early, without so much as a fond farewell. He also keeps Halzig around for no reason other than a few amusing scenes with Espinosa. And what about the generally superfluous persons played by none other than Arthur French?

The sketchy mentions of Danny's writing career could also use fleshing out. In an opening speech, Danny says he wrote a book because someone told him he should. But the question lingers: Is Danny a genuine writer or someone whose best-sellerdom was merely a fluke? Indeed, how formally educated is he? For that matter, how educated is the sometimes erudite-sounding Therese?

Until Guirgis rights some of these dramatic wrongs, The Little Flower of East Orange won't fully blossom -- no matter how devastating some of its parts already are.

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