nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
May 12, 2005
Is it cynical to not believe in miracles? Is utter certainty a virtue or a weakness? These and other questions of truth and its relativity form the core of John Belluso’s timely new play Henry Flamethrowa, now playing at Michael Imperioli’s posh Studio Dante.
The plot is much less dense than the subject matter. A reporter comes to a house where, reputedly, miracles have been occurring. The medium through which they occur is a young girl who has been in a catatonic state for almost a decade. Her father, a devout Catholic, believes that the holy blood and oils that have been seeping from the religious statues placed around her bed have healing powers. The word has gotten out and now people flock to his front lawn in the hopes of being healed. His son, Henry, is an intelligent and somewhat disturbed young man. He is obsessed with the idea that God wants him to pull the plug on his sister’s respirator because he believes the miracles to be a hoax perpetrated by his father. The father of course denies any wrongdoing, no matter how much proof is stacked up against him.
So Belluso raises the question of who to believe and cleverly never answers it. Instead he leaves it up to the audience to decide, and when it comes to miracles I think that’s the best policy. The question of removing the little girl’s life support is another one best left to the individual and considering all the media attention that surrounded the Schiavo case and, more recently, the fireman who actually woke up after a ten year coma, the subject is like a fresh wound in this country. This play is not an attempt to heal that wound. It’s not even a bandage. It pokes at the wound to see where it hurts. Belluso also shows us the power that belief holds to enlighten and to blind us.
All three characters are utterly certain of their respective positions and they all attempt to push their truth on the others. Belluso seems to be asking us whether it is a moral absolute that we not attempt to coerce those who we think are absolutely wrong. If everything is relative, including truth and morals, then how can this absolute (or any absolute) exist?
The fact that I find this sort of paradox infinitely interesting made it difficult for me to snap out of my pondering and become emotionally engaged with the characters. Belluso tries to balance heart and head in the story but it just didn’t work for me. The script is so bogged down with heady concepts from the existence of miracles to removal of life support that I found myself sitting in judgment and poking holes in the characters' logic when the playwright was clearly trying to get me to feel something. But I didn’t. I honestly don’t know if this is my fault, the script’s fault, or the actors'.
The ensemble is very strong. There is no lead character and each has a momentary revelation. Tim Daly as the spiritual, heart-driven father comes across as typecast because of his goody-goody persona but he manages to be convincing enough to cast doubt on his actions. However, he has several moments of intense emotion that I just didn’t buy. Yvonne Woods, on the other hand, plays the lovely young reporter with ulterior motives with such simple sincerity that I found myself tracking her every move on stage. Finally, Jake Smith as Henry is for the most part natural and unaffected. He is an impressive young actor with a lot of potential.
Director Nick Sandow does a fine job conducting his actors. He keeps the pace and the thoughtful acting style even and copes with the small playing space very well. Scenic designer Victoria Imperioli makes the set look great though a bit cluttered. The interior design of the whole theatre is really quite nice. It is like an 18th century French chateau.
I walked away from Henry Flamethrowa thinking. I like that. I didn’t come to any conclusions that I had not already considered. I still don’t believe in miracles—I believe that my perceptions are inadequate to know one way or another. I still would want my family to pull my plug—I just don’t find life that sacred. What this show has in abundance are timely issues that I don’t think will ever go away. For that reason alone I think it’s worth seeing.