Crimes of the Heart

Isaiah here again. Hi!

So, if you’re like me (and lord knows, why wouldn’t you want to be?) you listen to NPR in the shower, and as a result you’ve been deluged with ads featuring Kathleen Turner‘s sultry contralto beckoning you to see Beth Henley’s “Crimes of the Heart” at Roundabout’s 6th Avenue space, the Laura Pels Theatre. This is a trick! The actress — famous for a variety of roles, including the leads in Romancing the Stone, Peggy Sue Got Married, and on Broadway as Mrs. Robinson in the Broadway adaptation of The Graduate — is NOT in the show. Instead, Roudabout’s production is her directorial debut. So don’t go if you’re looking for autographs from Helena Handbasket.

There, that’s out of the way. Now on to the show itself.

The play centers around three sisters living in Mississippi, and takes place in the home maintained by the eldest, Lenny. All have problems with men: Lenny is turning 30 and worried she’ll never find a man; the middle, Meg, has run off to Hollywood to pursue a singing career and carefree sex; the youngest, Babe, is on trial for shooting her husband. Oh, and it’s set (and was written, and premiered) in the mid-70’s.

And therein lies the central challenge facing Roundabout, or anyone, in producing the play today: it’s 30 years old, and it hasn’t aged particularly well. Its one-set design means that characters must find contrived reasons to enter and exit (and in the case of Babe, be present at all — by rights she should be in jail); its dialogue is stilted and over-expository; its secondary characters serve more as foils than as fully developed people. These are challenges that are mostly met by the cast, particularly Sarah Paulson, whose Meg is simultaneously world-weary and optimistic — a lover of life, whose love has not been returned. Also worthy of praise is Lily Rabe, who brings a delightful youth and exuberance to Babe; she seems content to chatter in the kitchen until the whole shooting-her-husband thing blows over.

Any play that features three sisters mired in personal problems is liable to draw comparisons to that other play about three sisters mired in personal problems. This isn’t helped by Lenny’s imminent spinsterism, Meg’s love of love affairs, or Babe’s all-consuming innocence. And the entirely-too-abstract possibility of jail and a too-pat ending aren’t enough to pull this play off of the path that Chekhov so expertly explored over a century ago.

Still, this play about three sisters is entirely engrossing and exciting in those all-too-brief scenes when those three sisters are on stage, together, and allowed to act as sisters do. There are fights about long-forgotten transgressions, secrets kept from one another suddenly thrown out into the open, and of course moments of familial love and devotion. The play positively sizzles when it backs off and lets Lenny, Meg, and Babe go at it. Other powerful moments: a card game dealt but not begun; a character so engrossed in a phone call that blatant signs of doom are ignored; a birthday wish furtively made on a cookie with a candle; an obnoxious interloper at last chased away with a broom. And there are some brilliant monologues and scenes here that many, if not all, theater students have had the pleasure of exploring in a class somewhere.

Finally, kudos to Kathleen Turner for taking on a role on the other side of the footlights. There are enough strong moments to showcase an excellent sense of both comedy and pathos; one hopes that the next play she directs has the material to consistently employ her considerable level of talent.

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