There is a power in belonging to a tribe, and the rituals of admittance can take on mythic importance to the outsider vying for acceptance. Explored through the tense banter of a group of adults at an impromptu cocktail party, as well as through the eyes of a desperate child who hopes to belong to the local Cherokee-themed boys club, the Debate Society’s latest production, Blood Play, originally developed at the Bushwick Starr and currently running as part of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar festival, pulls back the layers of social niceties that form a thin veneer over our more brutal instincts, getting right to the visceral stakes of belonging and the sometimes bloody sacrifices that must be made to become a member of the tribe.
Despite this conceit, and the appropriately dark title, Blood Play is mostly a loony comedy set in the newly paneled basement of a typical American family in the 1950s. From the first moments when the lights go dark and we hear a blood-curdling scream, only to discover, when the lights come back on, that the cause of the horror is something as incredibly mundane as a leaky pipe, all we can do is laugh at the antics of these earnest and seemingly kind people. Our expectations are continually being turned upside down and the ensemble seems to delight in presenting the rituals of belonging at their most absurd. The men gather around the bar, forcing drinks on each other with a banter that is at the same time friendly and a test of manhood, while the women make calculated conversation about school and synagogue. Director Oliver Butler stages a series of increasingly silly parlor games with a wonderfully understated clarity of the underlying power dynamics at play. The ever-shifting tension never feels false, keeping us on our toes throughout the 75 minute slow burn.
Oliver Butler developed this play with writers and actors Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, and together, they make up the core of The Debate Society. In her performance as Bev, the 1950’s version of a desperate housewife trying to fit in to the new neighborhood, Hannah Bos shines. She illuminates Bev’s inner fear through her outward desire to please, which is enhanced by her pitch-perfect comic timing. Playing against the mesmerizing Birgit Huppuch, delivering another stand-out performance as the uptight matriarch of the neighborhood, the scenes crackle with tension, humor and a bit of sexuality. As their two husbands, Morty, played by Michael Cyril Creighton and Sam, played by Hanlon Smith-Dorsey, the pair of actors does most of the comic heavy lifting, playing off each other like a Jewish, suburban Mutt and Jeff. Emma Galvin gives an intensely simple rendering of the bullied young son, Ira, as well as performing some of the most visually interesting moments of the show. The heart of the production lies in Paul Thureen’s character, the gentle outsider named Jeep. A travelling photographer who unintentionally ends up at the small party, Jeep is the ultimate observer and the only character who seems to respond to the truth of what is happening, even if he doesn’t acknowledge it. Paul Thureen disappears into the character’s awkward tics and stammers with heartbreaking authenticity.
The elegantly designed set by Laura Jellinek adds another layer of complexity to this delightful and difficult story. By ingeniously placing Ira in a center window, distant and apart, the audience can focus on the adults’ party, but never quite forget the child’s loneliness, while drawing parallels to the childish way the adults behave as they, with the aid of a stomach-turning amount of cocktails, devolve throughout the evening. The lighting design by Mike Riggs and the costumes by Sydney Maresca both add rich textures to the functional, picture box set. The sound design by Ben Truppin-Brown and M.L. Dogg was so integral to the story telling it almost became another character, and was effectively chilling throughout.
Blood Play is at its best when shining a light on what is wonderful about belonging while simultaneously plunging us into the depths of cruelty we will not only endure, but inflict on others, hinting at the darkness rooted in community without naming it. Towards the end of the play, we are shown a scene that calls up the darkness by giving it a physical form, and while it is visually stunning and performed beautifully, it seems uncomfortably removed from the rest of the play. However, discomfort is not necessarily a bad thing, and the images created while a hurt young boy pledges “I will honor my tribe” are as haunting as good theater can get.