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The Busy World Is Hushed

Main Street Theater produces an imperfect play — and lots of conversation

Religious faith, domineering mothers and gay love all play a role in Keith Bunin's play with the lovely title — The Busy World Is Hushed — now running at Main Street Theater. Poetic and smart, the work asks us to consider such fundamental questions as what real love and real faith look like. Throw in some sexy man-on-man loving, and you've got quite a controversial evening of theater by Houston standards.

At the center of Bunin's story is an Episcopal priest named Hannah (Rebecca Greene Udden) whose faith in God is unshakable, even if she doesn't think all that much of the Bible as religious doctrine. We first meet her when she's interviewing Brandt (played with huge emotional punch by Justin Doran), a lonely bookworm who's looking for a writing job to distract him from the fact that his father's very ill. Hannah needs a ghostwriter for her book on a new gospel. Brandt is clearly in need of a strong mother type to help him through his father's demise.

Brandt (Justin Doran) and Hannah (Rebecca Greene Udden) hit it off amazingly well.
Doug Killgore
Brandt (Justin Doran) and Hannah (Rebecca Greene Udden) hit it off amazingly well.

But Hannah's got her own familial problems. Her son Thomas (Steven Laing) has spent his twenties hitchhiking around the country, moving from relationship to relationship and not contacting his mother for months at a time. He's home now, but Hannah's not sure for how long. Brandt, who clearly adores his parents, is just the sort of young man Hannah wishes her son were. The two hit it off amazingly well.

The heat is turned up when Brandt and Thomas also hit it off. Shy and bespectacled Brandt is attracted to Thomas's fiery extravagance, but he keeps his feelings contained until a surprising turn of events allows him to fall head over heels.

Framing the family conflict is a much more complex tale of religious faith. And it's here that Bunin's script gets tripped up. When Hannah starts to speak about faith, her lines turn into long, contrived speeches. Some of the information she imparts is interesting. We learn some biblical history; we learn about where the phrase "doubting Thomas" comes from; we learn that the Bible is a "haphazardly edited" book of stories. It's enough to keep an audience interested, but dramatically, the speeches are weak.

For some reason, none of the other characters seem compelled to cut Hannah off. They just let her go on and on. Even her son, who is often enraged by his mother's faith, listens patiently as his mother pontificates on what is wrong with his own lack of faith. Even when they're fighting, these people wait quietly for others to finish their thoughts before answering with an equally smart thought. At one point, all three actors are on stage battling it out. What starts out as a fight about faith devolves into one about love, but at no time do any of the characters seem truly out of control.

Some of the problems here come from Cheryl L. Kaplan's direction. She appears to be so afraid of the dialogue overlapping that she's missed some opportunities to kick some reality into the writing. Even the blocking is weirdly contrived. The actors often burst forth in a foam of emotion, then turn away from each other with a melodramatic wringing of the hands that looks awkward and feels lifeless.

But most of the problems are with the script. The most developed character is Brandt, and Doran is compelling as this emotional young man so desperately in need of love. Laing has the unenviable task of bringing Thomas to life. The character comes home to look for answers about his father's death, but he's so blustery and angry, it's hard to have much sympathy for him. We never really understand what makes this character so angst-filled. The same is true of Hannah. She is dogged in her insistence on her faith, but her feelings beyond that are so underwritten and completely unexplained, it's hard to know why she won't allow herself to become vulnerable and open to the world.

Still, for all its flaws and oddly unlikely moments, the story and the production are compelling in their attempts to explore intellectual questions and emotional paradoxes. This is a complex play, and though it doesn't feel completely finished, it is exciting to sit in the audience of a production that can elicit the sorts of reactions this one does — there was lots of conversation about the play, between acts and afterwards, all around the theater. One can only wish more mainstream Houston theaters would follow Main Street's lead and produce plays that demanded something other than a sleepy smile after the applause.

 
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