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Theatre in Review: Trick or Treat (Northern Stage/59E59)

Jenni Putney, Gordon Clapp, David Mason. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.

There are more tricks than treats in this ungainly hybrid of a thriller, domestic comedy, and dysfunctional family slugfest. This is one of those twisty enterprises that defy detailed description lest one give away too much, but I can tell you this much: On Halloween, retiree Johnny Moynihan summons his daughter, Claire, to his home in suburban Massachusetts to impart some baleful news. Claire, alarmed at having received a sobbing phone call from her father, expects the worst, as well she should. Johnny confesses to having been driven to the point of no return while caring for Nancy, his wife, afflicted with early-onset Alzheimer's. That very day, he says, saw an especially mortifying episode: He awoke from an afternoon nap to find Nancy up in the attic, squatting on a little potty designed for toddlers. In response, he says, he committed a crime.

That's all you'll get from me, except to add that things are not quite as he presents them, and, in any event, it's all part of a larger plot to cover up a decades-old act of manslaughter. Among those popping in and out the front door are Teddy, Johnny's violent, sociopathic son, who is about to be named police chief, and Hannah, a neighbor who can't stop putting in her two cents -- and, unwelcomely, calling the police -- partly because she and Teddy share another unsavory secret from the past. There's a fifth character, about whom I'd better not say too much, but her appearance, just before intermission, throws the plot for a loop.

What I can tell you is that Trick or Treat is an unpleasant, uninvolving evening. The playwright, Jack Neary, is a slick constructionist, but his use of Alzheimer's as a premise for a mechanical whodunit is borderline offensive. Even worse are his attempts to play the illness for laughs, as are the many stabs at sitcom-style gags about Justin Bieber and Tucker Carlson. (This is the kind of play in which Johnny mistakes "Kevorkian" for "Kardashian." Ha-ha.) There's no entertainment value in watching Teddy wrestle female characters to the sofa, threatening to strangle them, or hearing about the innocent citizen he beat to a pulp. It's even more off-putting to watch Johnny fawn on his feral offspring. And when the underlying reason for these shenanigans is finally revealed, one has to wonder what is so compelling about these squalid characters and their sordid pasts.

It's perfectly possible to spin out a malicious comedy thriller -- like, say, Deathtrap or Sleuth -- in which the fun comes from trying to figure out who will do what to whom. But Trick or Treat doesn't have that kind of satirical distance; indeed, it can't make up its mind, exploiting sensitive subjects like illness and violence against women without providing a single compelling character, yet acting like it means to be taken seriously. It makes occasional passes at being a probing family drama but is fatally undermined by its relentlessly carpentered, often barely plausible, plot.

At least, Carol Dunne's direction keeps things moving at a headlong pace, and the cast attacks their roles with gusto, if usually in one-note fashion. Gordon Clapp blusters about as Johnny, who seems to have a new motivation every few minutes. As Claire, who, growing up, never noticed her relatives were hatching unsavory plots, Jenni Putney does her best, but the character's naivete is sometimes hard to take. Similarly, Hannah seems to come and go according to the playwright's dictates, and Kathy McCafferty. Struggles to make sense of her behavior. David Mason's Teddy adds plenty of menace, but his manner is so sadistic it threatens to rip the play's fabric, further exposing the artificial nature of the proceedings. Kathy Manfre is touching and -- alone among her colleagues -- likeable as the fifth character.

The production design is first-rate, especially Michael Ganio's angled, cluttered living room, which tells you plenty about the Moynihans and their interests. Allison Crutchfield's costumes solidly support the characters. Ben Montmagny's sound design includes the voices of various trick-or-treaters, who tend to show up just as a plot twist is about to be revealed. Tyler M. Perry's lighting is clean and unfussy.

But Neary is so busy orchestrating his surprises that he never gives us a reason to care about these people or what happens to them. In any case, Claire's unseen husband runs the local newspaper. At least his in-laws have given him plenty of material for a few front pages. -- David Barbour

(22 January 2019)

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