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Leaves of Glass

This dark and mostly gripping dysfunctional drama leaves a suitably nasty aftertaste.

Victor Villar-Hauser and Euan Morton in Leaves of Glass
(© Origin Theatre Co.)
Philip Ridley's Leaves of Glass, currently performing at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, is a dark and often gripping family drama in which two co-dependent brothers share a repressed, lurid secret. Although the play is occasionally slack and decidedly overlong -- running two hours and ten minutes without an intermission -- it's nonetheless a striking piece of work that leaves a suitably nasty aftertaste.

At the heart of the story, set in London's East End, is the relationship between two brothers whose father died when they were teenagers. The older and more stable Steven (Victor Villar-Hauser) seems at first the healthier of the two: he's accrued a thriving business, an ambitious wife (played with snap and bite by the excellent Xanthe Elbrick) and the appearance of functional normalcy. In contrast, his younger brother Barry (Euan Morton), an alcoholic and failed painter, wakes up on a basement floor in his own vomit as the play opens, unable to manage his life.

The initial actions in the play center on Steven helping Barry to sober up and get back on his feet, but the playwright quickly begins to sabotage both our initial impressions of the characters and our expectations of their story. Before long, it's clear that Steven's charity is as much about control and dominance as it is about fraternal care, with dormant, intense hostility just under the surface.

It's also soon apparent that their father's death was a suicide, no matter how many times Mom (Alexa Kelly) cheerfully refers to it as an accident. The level of denial in this family system is so high that once we grasp its pervasiveness, some of the family scenes gain a vibrancy from registering both as brutal drama and as deadpan black comedy.

The playwright is clearly skilled at spiking seemingly benign dialogue with the menace of repressed hostility. He can also articulate swift, brutal honesty, as evidenced in the monologues in which Steven revisits the memories of his father's suicide. Ridley's writing is good, but there may just be a little too much of it -- even the play's riveting climactic scene, in which the brothers confront some especially ugly skeletons from their closets.

Morton is especially fine, vividly charting Barry's climb out of the gutter to his eventual sober confrontation with the events of his past. He and Villar-Hauser -- the brother of director Ludovica Villar-Hauser -- register believably as brothers enmeshed in an increasingly unhealthy dynamic.