By Joseph Hurley
CRIMES OF THE HEART, by Beth Henley. Directed by Garry Hynes. Featuring Mary Catherine Garrison, Enid Graham, Jason Butler Harner, Talmadge Lowe, Julie Murney and Amy Ryan. Second Stage Theatre. Through May 13.
Beth Henley’s "Crimes of the Heart" won the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1981 when the Mississippi-born playwright was not yet 30. Since then, Henley has come up with a string of plays so lifeless and so inept that more than one writer has wondered in print if the work that put her on the map was really of any value in the first place.
And, indeed, the all-star movie version came and went without causing much of a stir, while subsequent revivals of "Crimes of the Heart" have tended to make the play look like a dated exercise in Southern Gothic dramaturgy, peopled by characters who seemed more like cartoon figures than anything even remotely resembling flesh and blood.
It remained for the Irish director Garry Hynes, founder, in 1975, of Galway’s celebrated Druid Theatre company, to isolate and revivify the theatrical nervous system that made the hard-luck Henley’s play appear to be of valid interest two decades ago.
The venue where Hynes pulled off this feat of stage magic is the new home of the venerable Second Stage Company, where Henley’s revitalized seriocomedy will be on view only through this coming Sunday’s matinee performance.
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Hynes’s vivid reworking of "Crimes of the Heart" is solid evidence attesting to the inherent solidity of the Second Stage’s organizing idea, which is to breathe fresh stage life into plays that have been forgotten, or, perhaps, never got a fair shake.
Director Hynes’s New York reputation is largely based on her production of Martin McDonagh’s "Beauty Queen of Leenane," for which she won a Tony Award in 1998. After that, she directed Arthur Miller’s "Mr. Peters’ Connections" for the Signature Theater, which makes "Crimes of the Heart" her second New York production of a play without specific Irish origins.
Judging from what Hynes has achieved with Henley’s rather wobbly little comedy, a work that threatens constantly to veer off into condescending knockabout farce, the keys to making "Crimes" pay would appear to be inspired casting and a strong sense of the energy required to power a rather questionable minor vehicle.
In some respects, the three McGrath siblings of Hazelhurst, Miss., Lenny, Meg and Babe, resemble the trio of hungering Russian isolates, Olga, Masha and Irina, whom Anton Chekhov created in 1901 for "The Three Sisters."
Henley has even provided them with a loathed antagonist within the family, only this time, instead of a coarse, scheming sister-in-law, Natasha, the sisters’ "enemy" is their dull-witted, conventional cousin, Chick.
Hynes has been fortunate in her casting, with Enid Graham providing a credible and surprisingly moving portrait of Lenny, the eldest of the three, turning 30 as the play progresses, and facing a seemingly unavoidable future of spinsterhood as the daughter who remained at home to care for the declining family members.
As Babe, the childlike youngest McGrath, a 24-year-old whose attempted murder of her abusive older husband, a dubious pillar of the Hazelhurst community motivates whatever plot Henley’s play manages to claim. Mary Catherine Garrison swerves from time to time toward the shamelessly cartoonish, but somehow keeps from toppling into the pit, emerging with a sympathetic, mainly credible characterization.
Best of the sisters, perhaps, is Amy Ryan’s Meg, a sensible, inherently steady-going young woman, who, at 27, has witnessed the wreckage of her hoped-for career as a country singer decline into an aimless life of casual promiscuity and detested employment in a dog food cannery. The actress’ attractive Meg is a bastion of level-headedness, except perhaps where she herself is concerned, and comes across with virtually every life detail credibly and securely in place.
Ryan is a joy to behold, start to finish, but then, so, in their own way, are Graham and Garrison.
As that bossy cousin, Chick, Julia Murney is saddled with a basically thankless part, but she makes the best of it.