By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
Isaac is a guy in his 30s who teaches art and has a burning love for a student of his — a boy aged eight. What we know from Beautiful Child, the play being done by Fever Dream Repertory at the Adrienne, is little more. During the course of a class, Issac put his hand on the boys shoulder, then his finger on the boy’s lips. Anything else, we have to assume.
In the end, we also have to assume that the painfully awful Beautiful Child has something to tell us, but that gives it undocumented credit. The play by Nicky Silver — a Philadelphian who lives in New York and wrote Pterodactyls, Raised in Captivity and a new book for the 2002 revival of musical The Boys from Syracuse — is a mish-mash. It begins with a dream, always a red flag, then goes into a scene with two characters telling each other the details of something they already both know well, a second red flag.
Before opening night was over on Friday, red flags were crowding my consciousness.
After a few scenes, the play leaps into a new format: characters suddenly spring from their scenes to address us directly. Then it moves to a theatrical conceit equally jarring — fantasy; Isaac’s dad has shirked the secretary he’s been squeezing, and she’s sitting forlorn in on a park bench when a stranger comes to give her (ridiculous) advice and (cold) comfort. The stranger just happens to be the psychologist who treated Isaac when he was a kid. Cool coincidence! In one of the play’s many lines that could come only from writing, not speech, she says: “You can see the haze of desperation from miles away!” Yes, I could. It was mine.
The icing on Beautiful Child’s crumbling cake is a conclusion both illogical and absurd, and filled with unearned dramatic action. What's more, it doesn't elicit a realistic reaction from the other characters. Whether that's a script problem or the fault of Fever Dream Repertory artistic director Gary L. Day, who stages Beautiful Child, I cannot say; the script is so transparently manipulative with such a mess of theatrical forms, it appears nearly impossible to interpret.
The play’s women (Brie Knight as the squeezable secretary, Nancy Segal as Isaac’s icy mother and Jamie McKittrick as the psychologist) are drawn as cartoons, and under Day’s direction, come off in irritating extremes, with the ring of falsehood. I think they're supposed to have some funny lines, particularly the mother, but it was hard to tell. The two men (Peter Zielinski as Isaac and Steve Gleich as his dad) fare better — they at least can deliver some semblance of reality in their roles, if that is the point.
Beautiful Child is the second show here in two seasons that asks us to understand the mental anguish of pedophiles and the pain of their families. The other was a musical called Love Jerry, which might have worked if its lame music had anything to do with its story.
Yet, even without the news today that brings pedophilia into a national spotlight — the Catholic church, Penn State and others have given us plenty to think about — getting an audience to empathize by telling a child molester’s side of the story is going to be tough. It can be done, I am sure. The theater, which can take us to places we don’t normally go, as real people play out scenarios before us, is where it could happen. But it will take exceptional playwriting, and a production to match.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, firstname.lastname@example.org, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.
Beautiful Child: Presented by fever Dream Productions at the Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom St., through Feb. 4. Tickets: $20-$25. Information: 267-997-3799.