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STAGE REVIEWS : 'Merrill Wake': Raising Family's Buried Problems

December 11, 1987|ROBERT KOEHLER

It's clear where we're headed in the first moments of Bruce McIntosh's "After the Merrill Wake," at A Director's Theatre at the Lex. Frank Merrill (Doug Barr) tells wife Lisa (Robin Riker-Halsey) and sister Shannon (Michelle McIntosh) that Dad should have been at their brother's funeral today. Peter died in a National Guard plane accident, and it was Dad, after all, who urged him to enlist.

The clash with the absent father (James Higgins) is inevitable, but one of the strengths of McIntosh's play is that it doesn't come in the form we'd expect. What initially sounds like a retelling of "All My Sons"--father culpable for son's death in the service--ends up being something else.

For one thing, the surviving son in this story doesn't stay and confront his progenitor. In the hallowed tradition of Merrill men, he leaves before the struggle. Which is something of a blessing for Leah Lowe's production, since Barr equates acting with banging on the dining-room table.

That leaves the women to patch the emotional shards together. Each in her own way has her try at Higgins' Ron, who finally does show up, besotted with liquor.

His wife (Layla Bias Galloway) is putty in his hands. McIntosh's best scene shows how Ron gets her to drink with him, a moment that works on its own and also serves as a shorthand for their marriage.

Lisa, on the other hand, is out of Ron's element, a very non-WASP Italian-American woman with her priorities in order. McIntosh lucidly stretches and protracts their conflict--she seems to be losing the battle for his conscience, then bounces back, then he responds--but never resolves it. In fact, the whole family mess, like the dirty plates and utensils on the table, is never cleaned up.

Should it be? The compelling argument for McIntosh's non-ending states that no family with such buried problems can ever really do a complete job of housecleaning. But the final impression of the play is of a well-written first draft, still a bit shy of the dramatic catharsis so organic to this kind of story. There are hints of Pinteresque dialogue, touches of surprise, but none of the satisfaction of having completed the journey.

Higgins, when he doesn't go in for the drunken grand gesture Jason Robards used in "The Iceman Cometh," fully inhabits the role of Ron. Lisa can be steely, but Riker-Halsey gives us reason to understand the woman's methods of attack and defense. Galloway is at her best when her role is, but this mother remains stereotypic. Michelle McIntosh's performance is in big trouble: in the intimate Lex, she can barely be heard.

"Wake" is this beautifully appointed theater's second play in a row about a family back home from a funeral. The oversized set for the previous show, "Some Sweet Day," pushed the play in our faces. Bob Wilhite's design for the new show is a fine fit, as elegant (except for the odd, squat chairs) as Michael Gilliam's lights.

Performances are at 6760 Lexington Ave. on Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 3 and 7 p.m. until Dec. 23. Tickets: $10-$12; (213) 465-8434.

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