nytheatre.com review by Stephen Cedars
October 4, 2012
Blood Play, The Debate Society's new show currently being performed at the Bushwick Starr, is a strangely mesmerizing play. Its subject matter and setting are hardly original – it follows a group of recent suburban transplants in the post-WWII years, and there's much to recognize in the behaviors, costumes, and preoccupations. And yet the show manages to strike a balance between reflecting that period's shortcomings as we expect and exploring human contradictions in a way we don't. The effect is an experience that's easy to comprehend yet difficult to categorize, relatable and still obtuse.
The play's thrust is hardly rooted in story, as it instead focuses on the relationships between two Jewish couples and one door-to-door photographer living right outside Chicago. In a set-up that Raymond Carver might have used if he wrote about affluence, they are brought together in a basement parlor where they proceed to drink the night away while one couple's young son camps in the backyard. In a largely realistic though effectively claustrophobic set, the expectation is that their cheerful dynamic will sour through the evening until secrets and resentments are brought to the surface. But while co-writers and performers Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen make mention of such simmering elements, the play confounds that expectation by allowing the characters to meander through their various entertainments, leaving all the overt tension to the carefully crafted silences and off-stage dialogues sculpted by director Oliver Butler. It's as though the play is operating on two levels – on one, the behaviors and character traits are notably underlined in performance and writing; on the other, these are real people whose quirks are hardly worth underlining. The performance style is one of many elements that inspire these mesmerizing contradictions, and though everyone delivers, Thureen deserves special mention as the photographer who realizes too late that he 's an outsider both at the party and perhaps in the world at large.
It's in terms of this disconnect that the play functions best, but that doesn't mean it lacks metaphor – on the contrary, its perhaps too heavily steeped in it. The story begins with the realization that the root of an old tree has invaded the basement pipes, and the sense of evil bubbling under the surface is highlighted by the constant suggestion of the lonely son's sinister machinations being engineered out in his tent. By the end of the play, we're hardly confused about the idea that behind the most cheery demeanor lie the ingredients for violent restitution, but the metaphor becomes overt in a way that informs the play intellectually while not resonating at the same unique frequency as the character interactions do.
Ultimately, that overt metaphor (it is called Blood Play, after all) threatens to overwhelm the more profound yet less articulated relationships to time and space that permeate through the piece. But through the company's willingness to explore complications and avoid easy conflict, the play remains an enjoyably confounding and mesmerizing take on an otherwise over-explored theme, its deficit in poignancy certainly compensated with a surplus of eccentricity and originality.