nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
January 28, 2005
There are few things in the theatre more exciting than seeing a deserving actor get a breakout role that propels them from anonymity to A-list status. Veteran actress Deirdre O’Connell, a reliable mainstay of theater, film, and television for many years now, has been given such a role in John Belluso’s terrific new play, Pyretown. As Louise, a single welfare mother of three, O’Connell is currently giving the performance of a lifetime—hers, mine, and yours. This is acting at its absolute finest, and is not to be missed.
Pyretown tells the story of an unlikely romance between late-30s Louise and Harry (Christopher Thornton), a wheelchair-bound paraplegic in his early 20s. They are both emotionally wounded, hiding from life, and skeptical of any good thing that comes their way. It is with great hesitancy and delicacy that they finally allow their friendship to grow into something more. But, when one of Louise’s daughters becomes ill, economics and HMO bureaucracy threaten to pull the two apart.
Belluso has a keen ear for believable dialogue, and Pyretown is never plotted so obviously that the audience can spot its machinations. Belluso prefers to show off by writing fully developed characters instead. He provides Spartan details—like Louise’s description of her ex-husband, and Harry’s explanation of why he likes to read the same books over and over—that are just evocative enough for the audience to fill in the rest of the blanks. Pyretown also has some incisive things to say about the health care industry’s unspoken policy of sometimes putting revenues before patient care. This is the rare play where one walks out not only feeling aesthetically satisfied, but as if they have learned something as well.
Director Carl Forsman paces Pyretown at a brisk, but appropriate, clip, and has a good sense of spatial relations. Even though set designer Nathan Heverin covers the stage with the play’s multiple locations, the stage never feels crowded. Forsman’s staging actually makes the cozy playing space seem roomy—no small triumph. And, even though he guides the actors within a specific framework, Forsman still allows them a maximum amount of room to color within the lines.
As for the actors—well, they are dynamite. O’Connell and Thornton clearly have a strong rapport built on trust and respect, and, because of that, it’s easy to believe the quick friendship Harry and Louise forge. Their scenes together crackle with anticipation, expectation, and hope. Thornton imbues Harry with enough charm and vulnerability to diminish his disability as his defining characteristic: the audience stops thinking about his physical limitations because he stopped thinking about them long ago. Plus, he’s got enough soul to pass himself off as a convincing romantic leading man, when necessary.
O’Connell does it all as Louise. She is smart, sassy, sexy, funny, and vulnerable—sometimes all within the span of one or two sentences! It’s a meaty part that provides an opportunity to show all the colors in both the character and the actor’s spectrum, and O’Connell makes the most of it. Her characterization is the most three-dimensional I’ve seen on stage in quite some time. Her performance is so fluid that she makes it look like the events of the play are happening for the very first time. There is never a moment when it seems like she knows what’s going to happen next, or what she’s going to say next. For students and fans of great acting, it’s a master class.
The mission of Keen Company, the producer of Pyretown, is to produce “sincere plays” that contain “emotional candor, vulnerability, or optimism.” They should consider that mission accomplished with this production. Belluso, Forsman, Thornton, and especially O’Connell all achieve those objectives, and much, much more. Pyretown is a triumph whose impact and power I can’t possibly convey in words. It must be seen to be fully appreciated.