Family secrets are the very stuff of modern drama. Impose a newcomer, an interloper, into a family home with skeletons in its murky closets, and you’ve got the seed of a good story for the stage.
The Clearing is a good story structured too diffusely and stretched out too long. It begins with several scenes in reverse chronological order, bringing Pinter’s Betrayal to mind, but in failing to sustain that direction it squanders some of the power of its plot.
Two brothers in their 20s have a very close bond, closer than seems healthy, with a complex neediness that extends in a triangle to their mother. Chris (Brian P. Murphy), the volatile elder brother, has terrifying ghostly visions which, together with extreme emotional immaturity, have led to a breakup with a girlfriend. Les (Brian McManamon), the younger, quieter brother, is at least on the surface better-adjusted, having embarked on a steady relationship with a philosophizing photographer named Peter (Gene Gallerano). Peter, in turn, strikes up a friendship with the boys’ overly devoted mother, Ella (Allison Daugherty), who is in perpetual grief over her long-ago abandonment by the boys’ father, and who now seems to want nothing for herself, only her boys’ happiness.
As we inch towards learning the awful secret that made the boys so tight and their relationship with their mother so fraught, we experience moments of humor, pathos, wonderment, and discomfort, amid nods to Robert Bly and Walt Whitman and Saki and Sam Shepard. But as the boys return again and again to their secret clearing in the woods, where they roast s’mores and camp out and bicker and bond, it’s frustration, not tension, that mostly mounts. With the exception of the steady, sure-handed McManamon, the sparse script and slow pacing force the actors to try too hard, to pound at the moments between their lines in an effort to milk more drama than the script can supply.
That isn’t the only evidence of incomplete creative mastery. Daugherty handles an extended, completely unnecessary nude scene with as much sensitivity and honesty as I imagine any actor could have, but surely literal nakedness wasn’t needed to convey the idea, patently obvious in the dialogue, that Ella is opening up to this relative stranger as she can’t to her own family.
The play opens with a Shakespeare-style prologue delivered by Peter, musing about the biblical Abraham. It’s followed by a short scene taking place “yesterday” in which the boys meet at the clearing and talk anxiously matters we don’t yet understand. As we move back in time from there, and then slog forward, we eventually learn what these things mean and what brought the brothers to this point. Then, after the big reveal and the big shock, Peter returns in his prologue mode to deliver a corresponding epilogue.
Except, confusingly, that isn’t the end. We’ve seen everything we need to see, but the play insists on showing bits of gloomy aftermath that we’ve already inferred. This structural problem further emhasizes that it’s already taken longer than necessary to get here.
The show can boast numerous sharply observed and sensitively played exchanges among its people. But the slow-motion sequencing drains too much of the dramatic energy the interesting story deserves. With its tangled web of family love and trauma, this intriguing tale could have been a whole lot more.
The Clearing runs through Feb. 9 at Theatre at St. Clement’s (423 West 46 St.) in NYC.