Elevated language can enhance and sharpen a drama’s power to hold a mirror up to nature. Or it can just sound stilted and unnatural. The latter is the case in The Dark Outside, now in its world premiere production at the venerable Theater for the New City.
The latest stage work by British playwright Bernard Kops focuses on a family whose members, in spite of individual woes, live in a dreamland of unconditional love when they’re together. The occasion is the birthday of paterfamilias Paul (the venerable Austin Pendleton). Recently injured and having lost the use of an arm, he’s coddled endlessly by his wife Helen (Katharine Cullison). The couple express boundless treacly love and affection as they anticipate the arrival of their three grown children.
Their relationship lacks the nuance that makes fictional characters feel real. The awkward and unconvincing dialogue gives these accomplished actors little to work with, a problem that extends through almost the whole long one-act. The unfocused and, frankly, boring production leads me to conclude that the nonagenarian playwright cannot be at the height of his powers.
As I’ve pointed out more than once in past reviews, family reunions are a favorite way for dramatists to set up a riot of revelations. While predictable, the trope can pay big dividends. But here the cast can’t fight their way through their imprecisely elevated dialogue to make the relationships among the parents and children seem real, or to invest us in their troubles.
The one exception is a scene in which younger daughter Sophie (Brenna Donahue) confesses to her sister Penny (Kathleen Simmonds) the traumatic circumstances of her dropping out of college. Sophie’s speech reaches poetic heights and, delivered though the evening’s only compelling performance, bring a sense of relief that something worthy of note is finally happening. Here and only here, Kops’ elevated language actually elevates.
But the story quickly lapses into its former blandness. The parents’ reaction to the segment of Sophie’s story that they hear makes no sense, and the action resumes in as affectless and unconvincing a manner as before.
There’s much talk of and recitation of poetry along the way, along with the singing of old political and childhood songs as the generations reminisce. But these evocations don’t round out the characters as we see them. Instead they feel more like snippets of a writer’s fond memories of youthful encounters with art and other weighty matters.
“Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold,” declares Paul, deploying the most overused of Yeats quotes to bewail his neighborhood’s descent into violence. But evoking poets like Yeats and Garcia Lorca does no favors to dialogue that includes lines like these, from Paul to his beloved: “Sometimes I see you in the middle of the night looking out the window. Kids are dying out there. Poor little kids who do nothing, have done nothing, will do nothing.” Dialogue like that works only amid a heightened theatricality that’s absent in the production. Meanwhile, the “darkness outside” referenced in the title offers zero sense of menace, merely mentioned a few times and then forgotten.
Death may be closing in on the aging father, but the play as written, directed, and performed explores no such profundities. Troubles and threats are rarely shown or felt, except for Sophie’s. “It’s this bloody world that causes all the pain,” Helen says near the end. “We’ll all come out of this, we’ll all be happy again.” But how are Helen and Paul unhappy? We have to remind ourselves that Sophie has been through trauma; that her brother Ben’s (Jesse McCormick) wife has left him and taken their small children; and that Paul’s arm is busted.
There’s no indication that Helen actually feels or understands her family’s troubles. The same goes for Paul. “What wonderful girls we’ve created,” he moons as his daughters take their leave. If that’s the only lesson he has learned, why have we spent an evening with him?
The Dark Outside is at Theater for the New City through November 28.