nytheatre.com review by Nat Cassidy
August 22, 2011
With Brian C. Petti’s Banshee we are invited to witness one of my favorite things: a playwright wrestling with a deeply personal family tragedy through fictional, borderline fantastical, circumstances. In his program notes, and in the production’s corresponding blog, Petti details the mental breakdowns and eventual demise of his uncle Jerry, and how he has attempted to reconcile what happened through his writing, tipping his hat to O’Neill, only with a dark, supernatural twist. Knowing this detail makes viewing Banshee a fascinating experience and the play itself is an intriguing work that has much to offer, including two particularly fantastic, creepy moments and a handful of touching scenes. It’s a curious mix of American angst and melancholic Irish fantasy—think Arthur Miller and Conor McPherson collaborating on a rewrite of The Beauty Queen of Leenane—but ultimately the promising script is lost a bit in a rather clumsy execution.
Petti is clearly a capable and empathetic writer. He gives us a well-wrought portrait of the Sullivans, a small, working-class Irish family living on the West Side of Manhattan at the dawn of the 1980s. Eldest son Jerry Jr., born in Ireland but raised in New York, has just turned 40 and is getting back on his feet after a two month stint in a mental hospital. His slightly younger brother Neil is a city cop whose ball-busting demeanor takes nothing away from his kind and considerate nature. Their mother Kit is a hard, tough-loving Irish materfamilias who refuses to loosen the apron strings no matter how blue her first born son turns for want of oxygen. And their father Jerry Sr., is dead, but that doesn’t stop him from visiting Kit one evening with a warning that the girl Jerry Jr. has begun to date might not be entirely human.
The relationship between the two brothers, Jerry and Neil, is particularly effective, and Brian Christopher and Ron Morehead bring a delightful chemistry to their scenes, at once playful and masculine yet loving and sensitive. Elisabeth Henry as Kit fares less well, as she seems less organically invested in her role—or perhaps she is playing the cold, passive aggressive side of her character too exclusively, which prevents the character from attaining the dominating stature the play seems to want her to have.
But what really lies in the way of this production being a truly successful one is its internal timing—particularly its scene transitions. Normally, I’m quite loath to ever demerit a festival show for its technical shortcomings—often tech is so out of one’s control that it’s a victory just to have a set and lights in the first place—but the elements in this particular production go far towards becoming insurmountable stumbling blocks for the action, mood, and intent of the piece. Banshee runs around 90 minutes and I wouldn’t be surprised if at least a full 10 of those minutes is dedicated solely to set changes—if not more.
This wouldn’t be so deleterious a problem (though it’d still be a drag) if Banshee didn’t have so many scenes and wasn’t also purporting to be an eerie, suspenseful mood piece. Far too frequently, we’re given a short scene, then we fade to black with incidental scoring (either classic Billy Joel or Irish music) playing to pass the time. Then, once everything is set and the actors are in place, often times that would be the moment when, still in the dark, the music would fade and character voiceovers would play, leaving us in the dark for even longer. Then another short scene and it’s time for more set pieces to be moved. This happens over and over and over again, each time squashing the momentum and quiet dread you can feel the script trying to build, until you’re left with only a series of staccato moments that just can’t crescendo.
Thus unfortunately, this time around, the true quality of Petti’s script has to be realized more academically than viscerally. Still, the quality is there, and I hope Banshee is given a patient and understanding festival audience that could then lead to another, more controllable production, which it certainly deserves.