The Rules of Charity
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
June 2, 2007
Theater By The Blind's gripping new production of the late John Belluso's domestic drama, The Rules of Charity, explores the power that love holds over people: one character calls it "the power of contradiction." Belluso's play also investigates the rules mentioned in the title, the primary maxim being whether or not the receiver is worthy of charity from the giver. In The Rules of Charity, however, things aren't that simple. Everyone here is worthy and unworthy, and therein lies the contradiction.
Set in an unnamed city, The Rules of Charity centers on Monty, a wheelchair-using middle-aged man with cerebral palsy, and his adult daughter, Loretta. They scrape by on Monty's paltry Social Security checks, which barely cover the rent and all of his medical expenses. But, since having another source of income would negate all of Monty's Medicare benefits, neither he nor Loretta work. Loretta spends her days keeping house and taking care of her father, while Monty keeps himself occupied with books and the acquisition of knowledge (having never gone to college, he prides himself on being a self-taught intellectual).
Monty also spends a lot of time with L.H., the superintendent of his apartment building. By his own admission, L.H. is not book smart, and Monty's vast store of knowledge appeals to him—so much so that he and Monty are secret lovers. But, L.H. longs for more and finds it with Paz, an equally intellectual documentary filmmaker (and the daughter of L.H.'s boss) who hires him as a production assistant. Pretty soon L.H. and Paz are an item, and Monty's left out in the cold. Later, when Monty's journals—which he eventually intends to fashion into a memoir, and in which he details his romance with L.H.—threaten to upend the new life L.H. has created for himself, things get messy.
The contradictions at the heart of Belluso's play make it highly engaging. Monty initially shows a lot of generosity towards the eager L.H., only to get burned. Later, L.H. turns around and makes Monty an offer he might not want to refuse, even though L.H. is contemptuous of his previous dealings with his former lover. Meanwhile, Loretta goes looking for love in all the wrong places by hooking up with Horace, a hard-drinking, unemployed laborer who lives in his car. Her bitterness over the way her life has turned out makes things at home tough for her, so she seeks any outlet for love—to both give and receive it. "Just be a darling to me, okay?" she tells Horace as they embark on their ill-fated romance. Belluso's exploration of love's seemingly contrary dual nature—i.e. love and hate, cruelty and kindness—is viscerally thorough.
I also like the way Belluso introduces the idea of identity and sexuality as mutable: how the identity we present outwardly can differ so much depending on who we're talking to. The way the author navigates these personality shifts—from vindictiveness to goodness, gay to straight, etc.—is convincing.
Director Ike Schambelan creates an insular world that helps unify the production. The circles these characters run in are small and remote. They can't get away from each other no matter how hard they try. His use of some very classic rock songs to help cover scene transitions and to emphasize thematic elements is especially effective (not to mention that it's just awesomely satisfying to hear "Cat Scratch Fever," "State Trooper," and "Double Trouble," among others, in a new context).
The Rules of Charity is marked by strong acting from everyone. As Monty, Christopher Hurt anchors the production with a performance notable for both its soul and its deft physical execution. Nicholas Viselli's emotional turnaround as L.H. is thoroughly convincing. Pamela Sabaugh's slow burn intensity makes Loretta's turn-on-a-dime mood swings, from sultry to cutting, quite believable. And, Brian Bielawski and Hollis Hamilton provide more than ample support as the listless Horace and the humorless Paz, respectively. The always reliable Gregg Mozgala is also on hand, serving as the production's Narrator and play-by-play man for those audience members who may be vision-impaired—a nice touch that enhances the overall experience for everyone.
More than anything, though, The Rules of Charity confirms the talent and skill of playwright Belluso, who died suddenly last year at the age of 36. This play stands as a valuable reminder that the theatre world lost a potent new voice far too soon.