Playwright Beth Henley hit some kind of gold with her southern quirky comedy Crimes of the Heart (Louisville 1979, off-Broadway 1980, Broadway 1981). It was her one certifiable big success and continues to play around the world. Crimes has warmth, charm, and a particular, skewed outlook on love, life, and family. The play's easy to digest.
Alas, it is also, in its current revival at the Alley Theatre, a complete bore. The urge to sleep is mighty. There were walkouts at intermission, and I swear the specter of Eudora Welty wafted near the exit to daintily escort folks outside.
The play is old-fashioned, to be sure, highly stylized, and crafted with sure theatrical panache. It tries to be natural and goofy at the same time, and this stretch in genres isn't well served here. There's no cohesion to it; it bumps and spurts along, hitting the highs but stalling on the lows.
Director Theresa Rebeck (better known and revered as playwright: Mauritius, Bad Dates, Omnium Gatherum) can't quite control what's happening. The play chugs along, innocuous and rather bland, while we remain noncommittal as we furiously question why we're watching this. Rebeck spices the lethargy with some stage gimmicks when the individual sisters have their mini arias. She lowers the lights and overlays the monologues with soft creepy electronic sound, to no avail. This doesn't make what's happening on stage any more interesting. It only adds another distancing effect that pushes us farther away from the three sisters.
Today is Lenny's 30th birthday but everyone has forgotten. Caretaker for granddad who's raised the trio since their mother's suicide, frumpy Lenny (Melissa Pritchett) celebrates alone, wishing on a cookie with a candle stuck into it. Married youngest sister Babe (Skylar Sinclair), who has just shot her abusive politician husband because she "didn't like his looks," moves in with Lenny while out on bail. Wild child Meg (Chelsea Ryan McCurdy), supposedly living the high life and singing in Hollywood, returns home when she hears of Babe's arrest.
The three Magrath sisters collide and coalesce on this particular day, prodded by married Doc (Jay Sullivan), Meg's former flame; Barnett (Dylan Godwin), Babe's young lawyer who's taken a professionally inappropriate shine to his client; and snooty cousin Chick "the stick" (Bree Welch), who's all about propriety and what the neighbors will think of her relatives' trashy scandals.
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But only McCurdy, as wild Meg, who turns out to be not so wild as lonely; Welch, as scene-stealing cousin Chick, whose every entrance is a welcomed tsunami; and Godwin, as infatuated Barnett, capture Henley's unique mixture of faded Mississippi valentine with unconventional people. They seem the most real, the ones who might contain layers.
The ungainly set by Alexander Dodge is underpopulated and dwarfs the intimate action. The floor is hideous – a red flocked tile that looks like it came out of a Storyville brothel. This garish eyesore remains a constant distraction, another unnecessary detour on this bumpy ride to chicken-fried sisterhood.
For some unfathomable reason, Crimes of the Heart won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. You'd never know it from this less-than-sterling production.
Crimes of the Heart continues through May 5 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $26-$79.