Don't be misled by the straight-arrow posture of the tyrant who dominates Israel Horovitz's Unexpected Tenderness, which is currently on view at the New Jewish Theatre. This ramrod father is actually a coiled cobra. His baleful countenance presides over a volatile production that has been choreographed to the crack of a bullwhip. Yet as razor-sharp as this staging is, it should be noted that even a cobra can become repetitious if all it does is strike, and strike, and strike again.
There's been precious little dissembling in this thinly veiled memory play about the dysfunctional Horovitz household. The time is 1952; the place a congested home in a Boston suburb. Dad is a truck driver who just happens to be maniacally and pathologically jealous about Mom, an innocent who is maybe going crazy as the result of having endured all this abuse. The presence of Dad's aging parents sometimes serves as a buffer against their son's violent paroxysms. The cramped quarters also include a shy teenage daughter whose main function is to serve as her father's dartboard and an articulate young son who will, of course, grow up to write this grim saga.
The son doubles as our narrator. But then, there's a lot of doubling here; the actor who plays Dad also sometimes portrays his son. Got that? "You're clever, you'll get used to it," Horovitz writes in one of the play's more obnoxious yet telling lines. There's often a sense in his plays that Horovitz thinks he's smarter than the rest of us. Yet he's not smart enough to craft a drama that knows how to build. This script's arc is perfunctory; the supercharged scenes are almost interchangeable, as if they've been shuffled into the script as randomly as one might shuffle a deck of playing cards. Is the domestic violence at the end of Act Two any more potent than the violence that concludes Act One? Individual moments are often funny, even powerful, but the evening serves up an unexpectedly thin broth.
The production has been tightly, tautly staged by Brad Schwartz. All seven performances are excellent. Pamela Reckamp is especially persuasive as the confused and weary mother. Richard Lewis is a joy as the feeble grandfather. As his long-suffering wife, Diane Nelinson admirably conveys the self-absorption of a lifelong victim. Kevin Beyer delivers a vibrant cameo as the father's crass co-worker.
Sarah Wolff captures the confusion of a child who finds it hard to love a father she also fears. In the dual roles of son and narrator, young John Kinney is wise beyond his years; he brings to the production an aching sense that there's more to this story than we're being told. In the pivotal part of the father, Schwartz was smart to cast Louis Balestra, an actor whose work is fresh to local viewers. His menacing performance is all surprise; we've not seen it before. He can slither around the stage, he can jolt us. He can layer his venom with conviction. But he cannot bring three-dimensionality to a cardboard role.
Behind the scenes the work is equally noteworthy. Lighting by Don Guy, fights by Todd Gillenardo, sound by Robin Weatherall, costumes by Todd Schaefer: The playbill features many of the most familiar names in the St. Louis theater community, a telling indicator that New Jewish is becoming an ever more important producing entity. Especially intriguing was Dunsi Dai's cluttered kitchen set, whose slatted shutters make the viewer feel as much a voyeur in this home as the father often is -- though if it was ever explained why there's a piano in the kitchen, the clarification proved elusive.
Unexpected Tenderness provides intriguing comparisons to and contrasts with William Nicholson's The Retreat from Moscow, another memory play onstage at the St. Louis Rep. In that whisper of a drama, the parents' marriage ends with abrupt suddenness. Here the dissolution is foreshadowed with a clanging gong. That play is all civility; this play is all angst. Yet both scripts were hewn from marrow and tears. Both dramas are the cathartic results of playwright sons who were more faithful than they intended to be.