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Three Changes

Nicky Sliver's serious new play about the reunion of two estranged brothers receives a misguided and somewhat miscast production. logo
Dylan McDermott, Maura Tierney, and Scott Cohen
in Three Changes
(© Joan Marcus)
Audiences expecting the laugh-a-minute banter and chock-a-block absurdity of Nicky Silver's early work are in a for a shock with the playwright's far more serious Three Changes, now making its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons. And yet, while the work borrows (consciously or not) at times from Shepard, Orton, and Pinter as it tells of the reunion of long-estranged brothers Nathan (Dylan McDermott) and Hal (Scott Cohen), it also stays firmly in past Silver territory. As in seminal works like Raised in Captivity, Silver reminds us that one cannot choose one's family, but one can ultimately choose the family one wishes to create.

Without question, Three Changes is a decidedly imperfect work, with some very difficult tonal shifts. Moreover, some of the character's motivations and behaviors are less than believable, the ending is shockingly abrupt (not to mention vaguely ambiguous), and the direct address unnecessary. Plus, Silver can't help himself by inserting the perfect quip or too-smart remark even when it's inappropriate. But sadly, even the play's many strengths -- including some incredibly beautifully speeches -- are often camouflaged in Wilson Milam's rather misguided production.

Nathan, the younger of the pair by two years, is a mid-level Morgan Stanley executive living on the Upper West Side and cheating on his sweet, vaguely discontented wife Laurel (the lovely Maura Tierney) with the sexually adventurous Steffi (the ever lively Aya Cash), a vacuous Bloomingdale's salesgirl. His now-routine and superficially happy existence is shattered by the unexpected reappearance of Hal, a once-prominent television writer who has lost everything -- and found God. By night's end, Hal has moved in temporarily -- and soon permanently -- with the couple, and soon begins writing a novel based on their lives. This odd living situation, which the childless Laurel encourages in her desire for "family," gets odder still when Hal convinces the pair to let Gordon (Brian J.Smith, faintly over the top), the obnoxious if attractive 19-year-old homeless runaway Hal has taken as a lover -- to move in with them as well.

Ultimately, the work revolves firmly around the Nathan-Hal dynamic, which is thoroughly off-kilter here. McDermott spends the first act doing his now-patented scowling-and-screaming routine, which only results in making a basically unlikeable character close to detestable. After Nathan suffers a life-changing blow in the second act, the actor switches to an equally over-heightened and still unpleasant vulnerability. Nathan is supposed to regain the audience's sympathy in a virtual monologue in which he paints himself as the less handsome, less athletic younger brother long deprived of Hal's love -- which might work better if the actors had switched parts. Indeed, the mostly bland Cohen rarely displays any of the charm or charisma required to make Hal appealing to anyone -- most notably Gordon and Laurel -- rather than coming off as a half-baked con artist from the get-go. Moreover, the audience never gets the sense that he's enjoying -- never mind engineering -- his often-duplicitous acts.

Silver has always had a gift for writing women's roles, and Laurel ends up as the character the audience most empathizes with, thanks in large part to Tierney's genuinely affecting performance. Cash, one of our finest young actresses, completely nails her role, even as it seems superfluous to the play as a whole.

With some significant changes, Three Changes could be a play to reckon with. As is, it's little more than an often-frustrating night at the theater.

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