nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 16, 2005
Robert Moulthrop's new play Half Life is about a middle-aged man returning home from prison after serving a two-year sentence for fondling a teenage girl. How does a convicted pedophile, after paying his so-called debt to society, re-enter ordinary life? It's a smart, provocative question; the sad (and, I suspect, accurate) answer that Moulthrop provides in this thoughtful drama is: he doesn't.
Douglas's wife Eleanor, after enduring a variety of traumas both social (jeers and insults from neighbors, etc.) and psychological (alluded to but not much explored in Moulthrop's script), welcomes her husband back with as open a heart and as brave a face as she can manage. But she's the only one. Their daughter Denise, who has gotten married and had a child during the period of Douglas's incarceration, finds herself unable to forgive her father and refuses to see or communicate with him; he eventually forces the question, to very ambiguous result. Their best friends, Bob and Phyllis, put off seeing Douglas for more than six months, and when they finally do reunite in a very strained Halloween night dinner party, it's clear that neither couple can view the other in the same light as before.
As for getting a job, well, that's pretty much impossible. Bob tells Phyllis (though not Douglas) that no business in town will go near a convicted pedophile. Douglas is a teacher—indeed, the girl he molested was one of his students; obviously that profession is closed to him, despite his talent for it. So Eleanor gets him a job as a telemarketer. By play's end, there's little hope that he'll ever get a shot at anything more challenging.
The community, meanwhile, has closed in on Douglas relentlessly. He's terrorized by the prospect of leaving the house (and for good reason, as a couple of very vivid scenes confirm). His status as pariah is institutionalized, on the Internet and via signs at his home.
Half Life makes no judgments about any of this, to its great credit. Instead, it raises questions—very important ones: Is a man entitled to a second chance, even if he does something really terrible? Does the American justice system enable such a chance in this case? Are there crimes so heinous that the right to privacy must be superseded? Is it more important for society to be just or merciful?
Moulthrop's script is powerful, as much for what it withholds as for what it says. However, a recurring set of flashbacks—depicting Douglas teaching his science class, before he committed his crime (and attempting to link the play's title explicitly to the action)—is probably unnecessary and should be excised. Teresa K. Pond's staging is fine, particularly her use of three separate playing areas, which enables her to keep the action flowing continuously without having to break for scene changes. Mark Lynch does outstanding work as Douglas, really delineating the complexities of his situation and making this man--about whom the main thing we know is that he did this truly reprehensible crime--genuinely sympathetic. Lynch and Moulthrop are badly let down by the others in the cast however, particularly Cynthia Foster, in the difficult but really pivotal role of Eleanor; she gives us little indication of the mire of confused feelings that must be afflicting this courageous, battered woman.
Half Life deserves more life, though, after FringeNYC. For making us confront the complicated grey areas of a subject that we're used to processing only in black and white, it deserves nothing but our respect and support.