"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Leo Tolstoy kicked off Anna Karenina with those telling words more than a century ago. Ironically, however, it can also be observed that unsuccessful plays about unhappy families are all alike: They tend to exaggerate the tragic quirkiness of each character, but never allow the plot to breathe and evolve naturally.
Such is the case with Beggars in the House of Plenty, by John Patrick Shanley, now at Akron's The Bang and the Clatter Theatre. This accomplished writer (who won the Pulitzer last year for the searing Doubt) attempts in this early work to purge his family demons through a surreal, decade-hopping travelogue over an Irish Catholic clan's emotionally abusive landscape. While the process of writing this screed in dialogue form may have saved Shanley hundreds of hours on the therapist's couch, it lumbers as a theatrical enterprise.
Set in the Bronx and beginning when little Johnny is five years old, the play introduces his volatile dad, who works all hours at a slaughterhouse and then comes home to whack at a slab of meat with a cleaver before falling asleep standing up. Mom adores her husband, but is less involved with the kids. Indeed, she tells daughter Sheila: "You'll have three kids, and you'll deserve them." She doesn't mean that in a nice way.
Soon, Johnny's older brother, Joey, shows up in Navy garb, back from Vietnam, bearing gifts for Mom and eager to please the old man. Shanley then hopscotches through the years, providing snapshots of the neurotic love-hate vibe coming from the parents. At one point, Dad gives his treasured ring to the now-grown Johnny, which sends Joey into a jealous downward spiral.
This all comes to a head in a final act that takes place in a sub-basement of Hades, where Johnny confronts the specters of his parents and their inability to share their love with him and his now psychically shattered brother.
Beggars is a challenging script -- the kind that Bang and Clatter usually handles with aplomb. But the excesses of Shanley's highly personal take on nightmarish family life poses serious obstacles. By turning this family's agonies into time-fragmented set pieces, he fetishizes problems that deserve more cohesive exploration. The skilled director Sean McConaha never quite masters the balance between reality and imagination.
Still, the Bang and Clatter cast is virtually blameless for any of the play's shortcomings. Sean Derry, in particular, turns in an arresting portrayal of the playwright's namesake, Johnny -- both as a semi-invisible five-year-old and later as a tormented young man. Also fascinating are Doug Kusak as fragile Joey, Anne McEvoy's arm's-length mother, and Michael Regnier as a father (quite literally, as it turns out) from hell.
This is one case where the title of a play, in just six words, profoundly expresses the essence of the author's message. For any child denied the love of parents who clearly cared for each other, this certainly strikes home with immense power.