The Little Flower of East Orange
nytheatre.com review by Allison Taylor
April 5, 2008
Stephen Adly Guirgis writes with a warmth that grows into fire. As soon as his charismatic characters have wooed you with their street-smart poetry and acerbic sense of humor, Guirgis strips their nonchalant confidence. Left naked, his creations try to mask their sorrow with violent anger, but like their bravado, their outbursts only further expose the pain they try so desperately to hide. Guirgis's work, as demonstrated best in Jesus Hopped the A Train and Our Lady of 121st Street, contains an emotional intensity so visceral and cathartic that it often brings out the best in theatre.
That intensity cannot be denied in his latest work, The Little Flower of East Orange—a co-production by the collective of theatre artists that nurtured Guirgis, the LAByrinth Theater Company, and the Public Theater, where the show is housed. But this play about a troubled mother-son relationship feels less like a flame that equally warms and burns, and more like a forest fire that rages in awkward spurts. Under the direction of LAB co-artistic director Philip Seymour Hoffman, Little Flower contains a handful of nice moments, but they are not enough to distract from the play's jumbled, unfocused story.
Danny, who narrates Little Flower in a series of memories, abandons his newest stint in rehab when his sister, Justina, calls with the news that their partially paralyzed mother has disappeared. Unbeknownst to them, Therese Marie lies in a Bronx hospital after she was discovered alone in the Cloisters in the middle of the night. Unwilling to identify herself to an inquisitive detective, Therese consistently requests the nurses to bring her scotch, and hallucinates about her deceased, deaf father. When Danny finally discovers her whereabouts, his undying love for his mother is overshadowed by his frustrations with her—specifically her refusal to recognize her father as abusive.
Michael Shannon, his face perpetually haggard and his hair perpetually tousled, captures the anguish of Danny in the most unexpected places. Emotionally restrained when he greets his mother in the hospital, Shannon dryly dispenses Guirgis's morbid sense of humor to mask his emotional turmoil. (When Therese presses him about an ex-girlfriend, Danny looks about the hospital room distractedly and mutters, "Let's, uh, move on to some other debilitating painful subject now if that's okay.") In turn, Ellen Burstyn endows Therese with a charming flightiness. Burstyn's giddy, distant demeanor displays both Therese's childlike joy, as when she delightedly mistakes a nurse for Jackie Robinson, and Therese's calculated effort to hide her inner demons, as when she matter-of-factly dismisses any questions she deems unpleasant.
But what exactly are those demons? Considering that this is a flashback-oriented play, little is actually revealed about the characters: who was Danny's father? why did Danny become a drug addict? when did he decide to become a writer? why did he stop writing? Shannon and Burstyn's performances indicate there is much torture and trauma underneath, but the script never gets down to why these two fight so much. Most puzzling is Danny's strange insistence that his mother, nearing the end of her life, completely comprehend the utter misery of her existence. With memories of Therese's past also tangled up, the large revelations don't quite land, but drop hesitantly in the middle of arguments. Unable to differentiate these beats, Hoffman often lets the fighting dissolve into obnoxious yelling, especially Danny's final, circuitous "And then what happened to you?" interrogation of a painful childhood episode. Little Flower would benefit not only from some cutting, but more defined focus and back story, so that Guirgis's trademark intensity is justified.
Ironically, the main storyline is often trumped by the far less relevant but far more entertaining minor characters, including the robust Liza Colón Zayas as Therese's nurse, and the delicately sweet Gillian Jacobs as Danny's permanently stoned companion from rehab. Although she also resorts too often to sheer volume, Elizabeth Canavan gives Danny's sister, Justina, an appropriately hard edge. And as the foul-mouthed but big-hearted Dominican nurse Espinosa, David Zayas lands every chuckle available to him. His words insulting but his voice urgently concerned, Zayas delivers the most touching moment of the play when he talks a suicidal man (embodied with earnestness by Sidney Williams) off the hospital roof.
Hoffman does well with these off-center, tender moments, and this being his fifth collaboration with the playwright, he delivers Guirgis's comedic beats with expert timing. But in both the direction and the writing, the meat of Little Flower has yet to be fleshed out.