The Wisdom That Men Seek
nytheatre.com review by Jack Hanley
August 15, 2007
When a blood relationship ruptures and tears apart, and then decades of silence pass, the persons who had once loved and trusted each other are often left anguished by a single question: what happened? In Robert Liebowitz's heart-wrenching new play, The Wisdom That Men Seek, what happened between a son and his estranged father is the question put before us. Thankfully, Liebowitz does not use this question to drive a plot down a predictable path of family secrets revealed. This author knows that secrets are forgotten, that memories are simple sketches repeatedly erased and redrawn, and that what happened may be unknowable. That looming possibility serves to make every moment of this play gripping.
The play begins with Michael (J. Michaels), a middle-aged man asleep on his couch who is awoken by his father—a man long departed. Hardly acting the way a ghost should (à la Jacob Marley), his father is the same truculent and loud-mouthed person he remembers. (And he's hungry.) Michael, shocked at first, becomes more annoyed by his father's presence (a man he cut from his life years before his death). But soon enough he is provoked to cross swords with his father, and engage in a duel for forgiveness and truth. But there are other characters here, manifestations of the two characters at earlier ages. Liebowitz, as director, shows superb craftsmanship interspersing these living memories within the turbulent yet precisely conducted tête-à-tête. Not a beat is missed, never is there an awkward transition; Liebowitz wants to leave you emotionally exhausted—as every good drama should.
Liebowitz's writing is an actor's dream. And his actors know it. They take full advantage of the hard-edged script. Joe LoGrippo takes the boards thunderously as the oldest (and dead) father. He allows himself to be, soul and all, in the possession of his character. Truly, it is one of the best dramatic performances I've ever seen. And the actors of his younger selves—Mitch Poulos (the father at age 45) and Michael Ruocco (the father at age 18)—play no second fiddles in this work. Poulos rumbles with profound skill. He shows impressive range evincing the complexity of the younger father's rageful nature that taints his sincere love for his adolescent son. Child actor Artie Mezzo plays Michael at the age of 11. Like a seasoned pro he finds the authentic innocence and charm of his young character. Michael Ruocco's talent is also undeniable. He plays the father when he was a teenage soldier just returning from the shores of Normandy. He never loses the core personality of the father, and yet infuses it with all the piss and vinegar, and the high hopes of a young man entering the adult world. The three who perform the father do so with an almost mystical continuity of an evolving (or perhaps devolving) identity.
So, is this a great production—even a classic? It comes so close that I find it frustrating to have to say no. J. Michaels has fine and captivating moments, but Liebowitz's awkward blocking of his role is persistently distracting. And then there's the ending: not completely disappointing, but it strays very near the edge of triteness and sentimentalism. (Something the play never does previously.) But with a little reworking this production deserves a longer run, and much more praise (and a few awards.)