The Busy World Is Hushed
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 25, 2006
I was extremely moved by The Busy World is Hushed, the new play by Keith Bunin at Playwrights Horizons. It's about a mother, her son, and a young man who comes to work for her, only to find his life embroiled and intertwined with theirs. Busy World is a love story, and also a story of parents and children; most of all, perhaps, it's a meditation on faith in its many forms—on what it takes to make a life seem worth living, and on the ways we convince (fool?) ourselves that all those things we feel but cannot see (call it religion, call it soul, call it love) somehow comprise purpose enough to allow us to go on.
The play takes place in the library of an apartment in New York City, where Hannah, an Episcopal minister, lives and works. It has a large stained glass window, but as we'll quickly discover, such fussy artifacts are of no use to this woman, who is dedicated to discovering the real truth of Christ's teachings rather than the pretty renderings of them that painters and bishops have made over the centuries. To this end, she's writing a book about some recently discovered Coptic writings that date from 50 or 60 A.D. and may be a gospel pre-dating the ones in the New Testament.
Two thousand years ago something so extraordinary happened that many of the people who experienced it felt compelled to write it all down. But most of their stories have been lost to us forever. That's why this gospel could be such an enormous gift. In some small way it might cast a pure and necessary light. And then perhaps we can all get ever so much closer to a clear view of God.
Hannah says many remarkable things like this; one of the breathtaking aspects of Busy World is how far-ranging and genuinely curious are its inhabitants (and therefore, one presumes, its author). Lots of theological and philosophical notions are trotted out for inspection here, not so much for belief or disbelief, I think, but rather just to hear what they sound like when said aloud. It's riveting, stimulating stuff.
Brandt is the young man Hannah hires to be her assistant in preparing this book—her ghostwriter, in fact. His background isn't in theology, but he convinces her (and us) very quickly that he will be able to articulate her ideas with elegance and passion.
Brandt's job interview (for that's what the first scene consists of) is interrupted by the appearance of Thomas, Hannah's son, who has been missing for several months and now turns up a veritable mess, covered with dirt and bruises and with a dozen porcupine quills stuck in one of his legs. Hannah and Thomas have a very troubled relationship that began with his father's death off the coast of Maine a few months before Thomas was born. It's complicated, but at heart what Hannah seems most to want for Thomas is someone who he will consider family, and as she gets to know Brandt, and observes the way he and Thomas are getting along, she starts to believe that perhaps Brandt is the someone she's been hoping for.
Bunin puts a lot out there in his play: a woman who coped with widowhood by pursuing God and who now tries to engineer a stable relationship for her son; one man who never knew his father and runs from anything remotely resembling home as he tries to find his father and himself; and another man who is losing the father he loves dearly and buries himself in abstract ideas to cushion that loss and any others that may lay in his future. What unites the three characters, apart from their strong intelligence and sense of self, is a desire, possibly unrequited (possibly unachievable) to find an unassailable purpose. Love of another seems the best choice, but how often does that really happen? Where can we ultimately find that ineffable something that gives us light and grace?
Busy World is about religion, but I wouldn't call it a religious play: it transcends particulars to explore the most fundamental questions of humanity. We root for easy and happy resolutions but understand that they seldom occur and won't in this play; Bunin is trading in maturity and acceptance here, not romance or redemption.
Playwrights Horizons' production is stunning: Mark Brokaw's direction is invisible as he guides actors and designers toward choices that always feel inevitable and organic. Allen Moyer's set, which includes those striking stained glass windows, feels precisely right, a defining environment for both Hannah and Thomas; and Mary Louise Geiger's naturalistic lighting and Michael Krass's completely ordinary costumes further define characters and story without a hint of fuss.
The performances are stellar, with Jill Clayburgh continuing a remarkable streak on the New York stage with a layered, complicated portrayal of Hannah. Luke Macfarlane is appealing and touching as Thomas, neatly balancing the near-tragic hubris of this smart wandering spirit with the pain and panic that lie just barely beneath. And, in a performance that ought to establish him at the very front ranks of his generation of actors, Hamish Linklater is heartbreakingly real as Brandt. There are moments—when he confesses his feelings for Thomas, for example, or when he talks about his father's illness—when Linklater seems to channel feelings and emotions that are so deep and universal that it almost hurts to watch him. It's a rich and enormously affecting performance.
As is the entire experience of the play—The Busy World is Hushed is not neat or "well-made" but rather fuzzy and raw, the way real life is. It's an authentic play of ideas; a dramatic quest, in fact, for answers to life's most fundamental riddles. And though in the end no resolution can be provided with any certainty, the journey toward whatever each character chooses is resonant and essential.