Leaves of Glass
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
January 16, 2009
There are lots and lots of little, carefully laid clues in Philip Ridley's Leaves of Glass as to the exact nature of the secrets that form the twisted roots of the highly dysfunctional family relationships presented here—but the suspense of the play, such as it is, lies in the fact that in any given scene, at least one of the characters isn't telling the truth. Some of the lies are overt and conscious; many of them involve acts of repression that stretch back years and take an enormous act of will to maintain. Some of them are concretely designed and intended to manipulate other members of the family; some of them merely have that effect. And some of the time, characters may actually be having legitimate mental breakdowns—or they may not be. It's hard to tell, and even though the final few scenes tend to point toward which versions of which stories have more truth to them, not all of the webs can ever be entirely untangled.
The family in its present-day incarnation is made up of adult brothers Steven and Barry, their mother, Liz, and Steven's wife, Debbie. Steven and Barry's father died when Steven was a teenager and Barry around ten, and the more any of them talks about the father, the more it becomes apparent that his death was extraordinarily traumatic for each of them individually and for the family as a whole.
Although Steven seems on the surface to be holding it together better than anyone else—he runs a successful business, is married to his former secretary and living in a nice home, his wife is pregnant—there's something never quite right about his affect. He's just a little too polished all the time, a little too ready to say whatever he's expected to say and do what he's expected to do. (It's a tricky part, and Victor Villar-Hauser creates a characterization that's often very uncomfortable to watch—though I kept not being sure whether Steven's almost aggressive hollowness was due to thin character development, overly stylized acting/directing choices, or a brilliant portrayal of a man desperately trying to paper over an emotional abyss. One of the peculiarities about the play is that almost all of it needs to be questioned in the wake of its last couple of scenes, and it's a bit too long and unwieldy to be able to do that effectively.) Liz and Debbie seem at first to support Steven's polished image of himself—he's clearly the mother's favorite, and Debbie is the well-tailored mother-to-be picking out the best crib for her baby—but as the balance of power tips, they tip with it.
Barry, on the other hand, is clearly a mess at the beginning of the play—he's a struggling artist who occasionally works as a day laborer for his brother's company, and in his first scene, Steven rescues him from a passed-out alcoholic stupor, in which he's verging on delusional and raving about his terrors of a "Mr. Ghost." But as Barry stops drinking and slowly regains his grip over a period of months (the play takes place roughly over the length of Debbie's pregnancy), he starts to get angry, even vicious, and constantly confrontational with Steven. In fact, he slowly starts seeming to have the upper hand in their relationship; as he pulls it together, Steven falls deeper into a state of despair that his mother refers to as a "flu-ey buggy thing" but that is clearly more psychological than physical. As the play proceeds toward a final showdown between the brothers, Euan Morton's Barry gets steelier and almost seems to grow physically as he re-acquires confidence and directness.
The problem is, the play meanders for too long getting to that inevitable showdown, raises the stakes of the brothers' relationship enormously during it, and then wraps up almost immediately without any further interaction between them. Each scene is engaging on its own terms, but at the end, I didn't see how all of them were necessary to the eventual outcome. I think director Ludovica Villar-Hauser is trying to ramp up the tension by running the play without an intermission, but two hours plus is a long stretch when most of the scenes are either domestic two-character pieces or monologues—and at times, she lets energy deflate by allowing too much air in between scenes. The whole thing could have been tightened up by both Ridley and Villar-Hauser, and I think the play would have benefited greatly from it.