Stain feels like what would happen if Vincent Gallo wrote a play and didn’t have a disciplined editor at his disposal. It takes a lot to politically offend me, and Stain is the first play that has done so in quite a long time. The play has not-too-obvious right-wing leanings, a racist dad who would be comical if he weren’t so repulsive, and misogyny that rivals Strindberg's. I’m fine with offensive politics and dialogue if there’s an interesting story, as well as believable, if not sympathetic characters, and true human struggle. But rather than inject some creativity and careful thought into Stain, playwright Tony Glazer has instead given the play a hopeless string of cliché’s and confused character motivations. The result is a play where the harshness cannot be justified.
Allow me to list the number of supposedly controversial themes addressed in Stain: abuse, racism, rape, molestation, teen parenthood and confusion over biological parents, incest, divorce, drugs, unprotected sex, and legal manipulation. Glazer left murder out of an otherwise complete set, but his casual assumption that abortion is murder has it there by proxy.
Playing with a glut of themes along these lines is not necessarily doomed to failure—in fact, this year Pulitzer winner, August: Osage County, also featured a seemingly endless string of similar catastrophes. But where August offered real human struggle, black humor, and broken human lives, Stain instead offers stunning plot twists for the sake of stunning plot twists. Glazer mentioned in a recent interview that he wanted to address the repercussions of not being honest with your family, and that point is certainly jammed down our throats repeatedly. But with such confused character motivations and dubious melodrama, there’s not enough else going for the play to overcome the clichés, other than a handful of witty lines.
The play centers around how a bunch of adults have been wholly unfair to one extremely unlucky fifteen-year-old named Thomas (Tobias Segal). In addition to Arthur, the said racist, borderline-alcoholic dad (Jim O’Connor), Thomas has a repressive, manipulative mother, Julia (Summer Crockett Moore), a botox-using, saintly (if Republican) grandma Theresa (Joanna Bayless), and a pot-smoking, insult-trading buddy George (Peter Brensinger). There’s obviously a secret everyone is keeping from Thomas about his parents’ divorce, and he spends most of the first act asking for it. We also learn that he’s knocked up a 32-year-old Puerto Rican lawyer, Carla (Karina Arroyave), who, rather than facing statutory rape charges, plans to raise the baby on her own and ignore Thomas altogether while still demanding child support once Thomas turns eighteen.
The play struggles with consistency and believability throughout. How can Thomas, so wiry and awkward, have convinced an educated women that he was of the age of consent, much less be smooth enough to convince her to sleep with him? How could Theresa, at once batty and immensely grounded, have been so oblivious to the true history of Thomas’ birth? How could anyone not think of calling the cops on Carla, despite her legalese?
Perhaps most offensive, however, is Glazer’s brazen sweep over the question of abortion. Thomas’s situation seems like the kind of case Roe v. Wade was made for, but rather than at least seriously considering all possibilities, the issue is shot down by both Carla and, less believably, Thomas’ family. When Carla mentions she’s not having an abortion, Theresa casually declares, “We’re Republicans.” When your fifteen-year-old son’s future is on the line, you simply cannot shoot down the possibility so easily because of a political conviction, even by a family that believes “liberal” and “welfare” are appropriate crossword puzzle solutions to the description “destructive.” At the very least, you could consult a lawyer much more quickly.
Segal’s performance as Thomas may be the most redeeming element of Stain. A recent Drama Desk nominee, Segal is ironically the most mature and professional actor in the cast, effortlessly gliding through Thomas’ range of emotions while never dropping his overwhelmingly adolescent glaze. Hopelessly clumsy, he looks to have outgrown his body. Through pure charm, he almost allows you to forgive Glazer’s poorly thought-out decision to make Thomas a drug user and lawyer-seducer. Bayless’ Theresa would have given the other noteworthy performance as the capricious grandmother, who seems to be on more drugs than botox. Unfortunately, Bayless struggles with her lines too often for her performance to really shine.
Stain is a willfully obnoxious play, one that doesn’t try to make its audience happy or play to viewers' political sympathies. In a way, we should be seeing a lot more of this kind of attitude in the New York theater scene. But without a proper play to back up that attitude, the obnoxiousness translates to something more sophomoric than productive.
Through August 23. Stain, written by Tony Glazer. Directed by Scott D. Embler. Scenic Design by Eddy Trotter. Costume Design by Cully Long. Lighting Design by Nick Kolin. Sound Design/Original Music by Andrew Eisiele. Photos by Orlando Behar.
Starring Tobias Segal (Thomas), Jim O'Conner (Arthur), Peter Brensinger (George), Summer Crockett Moore (Julia), Joanna Bayless (Theresa), and Karina Arroyave (Carla).