Theater Review: Trick or Treat, Northern Stage | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Theater Review: Trick or Treat, Northern Stage


Published January 25, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated January 27, 2017 at 8:06 p.m.

Left to right: Katie Bruestle, Jenni Putney, David Mason and Gordon Clapp - COURTESY OF JASON MERWIN
  • Courtesy of Jason Merwin
  • Left to right: Katie Bruestle, Jenni Putney, David Mason and Gordon Clapp

Giving a new play a full production is risky, but Northern Stage has doubled down in its world premiere of Jack Neary's Trick or Treat. The theater has spared nothing on production values for a show that weaves together comedy, drama and suspense. This gives Emmy Award-winning actor Gordon Clapp strong support as he turns in a powerful performance in the central role.

The story is propulsive, and neither director nor playwright pauses to tap the brakes. But nothing rushes by too quickly; director Carol Dunne and an accomplished acting ensemble let every revelation register. And there are plenty of them. One Halloween night in a working-class home in Lowell, Mass., a family comes to terms with its past and faces its future.

Johnny is retired after a workingman's life as a janitor at the veterans' hospital. His wife, Nancy, has Alzheimer's disease, and he's taking care of her at home. Their two children, who live nearby, have families of their own. Son Teddy is a policeman headed for captaincy; daughter Claire is a school librarian. Johnny has been holding up to the demands of caring for his wife until an incident that Halloween. He's so shaken by changes in Nancy that he puts her to bed and smothers her with a pillow.

In Neary's hands, that's the launching point for a comedy, not a tragedy. Without avoiding the drama in these grim circumstances, the production paints a comic reality, but it's no whitewash of comic relief. As Neary's characters hit humorous notes, they ring true because they are people, not plot devices. The overt comic element is a busybody neighbor whose ill-timed curiosity about Nancy challenges the family to unite against a pest. But the best laughs in the show are character driven.

Suspense and drama are not shortchanged, either. The story is more complex and satisfying than the outline sketched here, but to hint at the play's two big surprises would spoil them. It's fair to say that both a trick and a treat await the audience.

Balancing each dark moment with a ray of light can feel formulaic, but this production keeps everything fresh. Dunne steers her talented troupe through the events of one tumultuous evening by building and releasing tension. The stakes are high, and the performances are direct and naturalistic, without a speck of artificiality. This is ensemble acting at its best, with performers listening to each other to experience each moment. Convincing characters, not wordplay, spark the audience's laughter and emotional investment.

Clapp works among equals in this production, even if he has more star power: He's best known for his stint as a detective on "NYPD Blue," which netted him an Emmy. Clapp and Neary have worked together before, and the playwright wrote this role with Clapp in mind. Their collaboration began when the play was workshopped in Northern Stage's New Works Now festival last January. That series launched two other new plays that have gone from White River Junction premieres to runs in New York or New Jersey.

As Johnny, Clapp commands attention from the moment of his stiff-legged entrance, hauling a bowl of candy from the kitchen for the night's trick-or-treaters. He summons the physicality of a retired laborer and shows the frustration of a man whose strength and stamina are deserting him. With his irascible bark and Boston accent, Johnny doesn't do self-pity. But he's near the end of pretending he can use the Pats game to sidestep his feelings.

Johnny confronts the family's secrets and lies with heartrending clarity. Clapp's gripping performance is built on showing the character fight his pain, allowing us to see and connect with his struggle.

As Claire, Jenni Putney maintains a state of earnest wonder as she's buffeted by events into shock or indignation. In her first exchange with her father, she's the impatient one who won't let him complete a thought, but Putney also shows that Claire cares for him. With well-honed comic timing, she lands the laughs beautifully.

As Teddy, David Mason enters a room with a cop's wariness, keeping his eyes peeled. He has a restless energy as he struts about in his police jacket and off-duty jeans. Mason subtly conveys the son's power over his father and puts a menacing volt of electricity in the character's pacing even as he tries to defuse a difficult situation.

Katie Bruestle fills out the comedic corners of the obnoxious neighbor, Hannah, with steely takes and energetic bluster. Hannah is the epitome of a guest overstaying her welcome, but Bruestle keeps her engaging by emphasizing her natural curiosity. Rising above a mere plot catalyst, she shifts from clueless intruder to suspicious bystander, while comically always missing the central truth of the situation.

The set designed by Michael Ganio is a triumphant use of the theater's height and three-quarter-round playing space. The audience peers down into a detailed living room backed by a full-height staircase, which leads to a partially visible second floor. Tyler M. Perry's mood-driven lighting, Allison Crutchfield's costumes expressive of economic class, and Ben Montmagny's textured, offstage sound effects complete a solid technical realization.

Northern Stage has gambled that audiences will come to a brand-new play by an unfamiliar playwright. It's a risk, but it's also a recognition that theater itself depends on renewal and change. The playwright's effort to present a moving story using comic touches is largely successful, even if straddling two moods occasionally undercuts both.

Yet polished performances and meticulous production standards leave the final impression. Clapp's intensity is memorable, and this ensemble shows how powerful theater can be, especially when actors discover surprises before our eyes.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Tricked Out"