The Infliction of Cruelty
nytheatre.com review by Seth Duerr
August 20, 2006
In Andrew Unterberg and Sean McManus's new play, The Infliction of Cruelty, the authors posit an interesting revenge: while one may be poisoned in a single lethal dose, would it not be crueler to be infected gradually, made sicker with each passing year, never knowing why?
The story is of two brothers, Thomas and Jonathan, and their sister, Prussia, and the secret they have harbored for 15 years. Instead of confronting the father that has betrayed them all, they make a pact to grow further apart from their father over time, returning less and less of his love, keeping him ignorant of how it was lost.
The conceit of the playwrights' design is incredibly stageworthy.
Unfortunately, a great idea, poorly executed, can set the stage for disappointment.
For most of the 90 minutes spent in the theatre, you will be feasted with some of the greatest quotes in all of history. The siblings vomit them forth, often slipping in their own quasi-poetic discharge. They're all too smart for their own good, and so are Messrs. Unterberg and McManus.
During the performance, I listened to the audience's "hmm's" and "ah's"—vocal assertions that they recognized the quotes and their meanings. The alternative was to admit they were wasting their time and money, and the majority of audiences are still too afraid to acknowledge a waste of their time wherever literary elitism is involved, or a waste of their money after a night at a poorly directed opera or Broadway show. Why don't we ever cry out against pretentious wolves when they sneak around pretending to be truly worthy sheep?
The actors are, for the most part, extremely talented. Elizabeth Van Meter as Prussia offers a performance full of humor, tragedy and the closest to anything in the Chekhovian stratosphere that the playwrights attempt to inhabit (watch for a lovely scene in which she runs the gamut of emotions all with her back to the audience.) Graham Holter as Jonathan and Pawel Szajda as the uninformed youngest, Benjamin, have some shining moments. Aimée DeShayes' as family outsider, Zoe, is alternately charming, grounded and piercing, arriving at the most profound conclusions in her performance.
The only true disappointment in the cast is Justin Barrett as eldest brother, Thomas. Thomas conceived of the time-released infliction against their father, offering his character an astounding, thought-provoking philosophy, one which is frightening to consider. Alas, Barrett never steps up to the challenge, which is too bad, as it's a very strong role and may have solidified far more of the writer's intentions. Barrett's carriage does little for his believability in the role nor do his quotes. It seemed difficult for him to memorize and deliver them with any muscularity of phrasing—tasks that his character would never have trouble performing.
As director, Joel Froomkin does little to actually have his actors speak with, rather than at, each other. High praise is in order for the stage crew, who only have a few moments to assemble Jerome Martin's wonderful set after the previous Fringe show's completion.
This is not a bad play. To my mind, it is far worse than that—it is mediocre. There are too many talented people involved for that to be excused. The premise is still very strong, regardless of its execution. Its closing-line literary reference is sublime. However, an inspired beginning and a tragic end are raped here by a flaccid middle.