Monday, February 8, 2016

Review: 'Beautiful Child'

Nicky Silver's Beautiful Child," a mish-mash of a play about a molester, is being done by Fever Dream Repertory at the Adrienne. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews.

Review: 'Beautiful Child'

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Steve Gleich as the father and Peter Zielinski as Isaac in Fever Dream Repertory's production of "Beautiful Child." Photo by Matt Hurst.

By Howard Shapiro

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,, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at Hear his reviews at the Classical Network,
Beautiful Child: Presented by fever Dream Productions at the Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom St., through Feb. 4. Tickets: $20-$25. Information: 267-997-3799.

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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