Families! You can't live with them and god knows you can't live without them — but you can mine them for playwriting material. The history of theater is larded with dysfunctional families of every stripe, providing an apparently bottomless well of frustration, agony and torment. Not to mention the occasional laugh.
The playwright Sam Shepard made a tidy cottage industry out of plays involving various family issues. And The Late Henry Moss, now at None Too Fragile Theater in Akron, is a particularly pungent example. It features a seedy boozer of a father and his two grown sons who are trying to accommodate themselves to the old man's death. Indeed, the play begins with old Henry wrapped up in a sheet on a bed while his sons, Earl and the younger Ray, swill whiskey and rage at each other.
Shepard, who died last year, had a passion for trying to work out the relationships and conflicts that men have with their fathers. And brothers. This testosterone-soaked script is no exception, with the sole female role embodied by Conchalla, a mystical Mexican life-force goddess who delights and torments Henry both before and after his demise.
The somewhat laborious structure of the play is built around Ray's incessant questioning of people who were around when his dad died, including Earl, a neighbor named Estefan, and the taxi driver, dubbed "Taxi" by Ray, who gave Henry his last lift. There's a lot of intense interrogation going on, but the only trouble is it's hard to see what anyone has at stake. After all, the old man's dead and his sons are clearly on their way to detox centers or early dirt naps themselves.
Ray brutally intimidates his targets, eventually kicking hapless Earl under the kitchen sink, repeatedly putting Taxi in his place (literally, next to the front door) and hectoring helpful Estefan for cooking Mexican dishes that "stink." Even with all that surface conflict, there's a strange vacuum at the heart of this play that even the superb director Sean Derry can't quite overcome.
Perhaps part of the problem is that Derry cast himself as Ray. This is a scuzzy character type that Derry, an accomplished actor, could do in his sleep. Or even in a prolonged coma. As a result, there's a lack of freshness to his performance that a director could have helped him with, if the director wasn't occupying the same skin sack as the actor.
As brother Earl Moss, Bryant Carroll drinks, curses and rages at all the appropriate times, but it all seems like an act we've seen before. No doubt most of this has to do with the script that lands in a familiar groove and never strays far from that comfort zone.
The trifecta of Moss-y misbehavior is completed by Robert Hawkes as Henry, and he can truly put a shiver up your spine with some of the deadeye gazes he gives his sons. But his character is revealed so early on, there's never a chance to find any nuances that might contribute to an understanding of why Henry is the prick that he is.
This lack of subtlety extends to Conchalla, a part written in such an over-the-top manner (she strips her clothes off, she eats a live fish, she screams manically) that it only reveals one thing: The playwright, at least in this play, is totally befuddled by women and stuffs the one female character into a magical realism corner where she can't get out. Even so, Diana Frankhauser gives the role a sharp edge, and she is often the most interesting thing to watch on stage.
The same could be said for Brian Kenneth Armour who plays Taxi with an amiable good humor. While Ray is going off on him during his interminable questioning, Armour's Taxi rolls with the verbal punches and actually comes out on top. Armour, a long-time member of the None Too Fragile company, has never been better.
While several characters fail to land with the desired impact, only one falls completely off the grid. As Estefan, the mild-mannered neighbor who brings Henry soup, Christopher Fortunato's line deliveries are flat. He never registers as a dimensional character with any back story; he is merely a punching bag for Ray. And Fortunato's Hispanic accent is, to put it kindly, a work in progress (with very little progress made to date).
If you've seen other Sam Shepard plays such as Buried Child, True West and Fool For Love, you know that he is capable of crafting surprisingly involving works that resonate long after the final curtain. But Henry Moss is a less successful example of this playwright's work, and it's given a production that doesn't reach the high bar of quality that None Too Fragile has set for itself.
So, pass the whiskey and let's see what they do next.