One assumes that before Dorothy Lyman decided to do Roma Greth's "A Quality of Mercy" as the inaugural production for her A Director's Theatre at the Lex, she read the play.
If so, one has to wonder why she didn't read it more closely and what prompted her to choose it to launch her new pocket-size house at McCadden Place and Lexington Avenue. There is, alas, no play there--just the barest beginnings of one. What's more bewildering, the production it receives is pedestrian at best.
This tiresomely realistic tale of a young woman who returns to her parents' small-town Midwestern home on Memorial Day weekend 1972, after a long absence, is a curious undertaking, curiously titled, lacking both point and compassion--or that very mercy in the title.
Mary May Meneely (Karin Argoud) is a '60s radical seriously (and ironically) injured in a bombing in the urban trenches of anti-war activism. She is permanently confined to a wheelchair. Yet her return home after many years is greeted with fear and loathing by her parents.
Nothing has cooled their fury. They make sure she doesn't set foot in the house (leaving her to spend the night in the back yard without food, blanket or bed) and can't wait to get her away from there, even if it means remanding her to a state hospital for life. They are clearly models of Christian piety.
Mother (Marie Cheatham) is a flitty, mindless housewife who indulges in amateur theatricals. Her biggest trauma is blanking out on her lines over concern about Mary--not having her there, but how to get rid of her. Shucks. Her anguish after rehearsal even makes her forgo coffee with the cast.
Father (Herb Mitchell) is a surly something-or-other, capable, when pushed, of extreme nastiness. As for sister Martha (Natasha Kautsky), a goody-two-shoes and recent convert to Seventh-day Adventism, she's the only member of this family who displays any quality of mercy for the hapless Mary. While next door, there is Henry (Allan Kayser), a passionless mama's boy who had a thing for Mary once, which he's conveniently transfered to her sister Martha.
What a bunch of creeps.
True, Mary is unrepentant--clearly the bluff of a desperate creature. And true, she continues to shock Mother and Dad, verbally anyway. Who can blame her? They're an unmitigated pair of self-righteous, racist bigots.
Why Greth--or Lyman--would think for a minute that these people could elicit a shred of interest is difficult to imagine. They are, for one thing, hopelessly two-dimensional. Even if Greth had written her play as the blackest of satires, she'd have her work cut out. Instead, she's written it as an on-the-level family tragedy, which Lyman has directed as one, with coincidences dotting the landscape and dialogue that never rings true.
The acting is mostly stilted (perhaps only because the script is) and the set by Brian Eatwell under lights by David Johnson is pristinely unbelievable. Conveniently, there's a garden shed that just happens to have a toilet in it, so that Mary can use it since she's certainly not invited in the house. Conveniently, too, Henry shows up on cue when needed, even if it's the middle of the night.
He's a minor wimp without much moral or other fiber, while poor boring Martha is a big wimp who's already embarked on a career as a petty, nagging future wife. Meant for each other? Maybe, except that the play ends with Henry switching allegiances, as he picks poor Mary off the cold ground (where a row with her father has left her sprawled) promising eternal devotion.
Is this the quality of mercy? This mawkish act of betrayal of both sisters? The answer to this monstrous parental defection?
It's more like the quality of muddle. Mary May as we know her wouldn't know what to do with a wet noodle like Henry, and to abruptly stop the play (it's not an ending) with this ludicrous love scene is the most graphic measure of how unresolved the work is in the playwright's own mind. This piece doesn't need a rewrite. It needs an overhaul.
An altogether inauspicious beginning for A Directors' Theatre.
Performances at 6760 Lexington Ave. run Thursdays and Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 7 and 10 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m., until Nov. 1. Tickets: $10-$12; (213) 465-0070.