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Theatre in Review: Our Brother's Son (Pershing Square Signature Center)


Following the science causes a peck of trouble for the family featured in Charles Gluck's new drama. The beleaguered characters include Leo, who runs the family business (textiles, I think) with an iron hand; David, his younger brother and junior partner, who has mental health issues; and Gail, a brittle lesbian department store buyer. The clan also includes Susan, Leo's wife, a book club devotee; Mindy, David's brassy, wisecracking spouse; and Bradley, David and Mindy's son, who, in his mid-twenties, is stuck in his basement bedroom, obsessively playing video games; he is allegedly brilliant with computers, but you'll have to take that on faith.

Our Brother's Son assembles them all for Thanksgiving dinner, marked by the usual veiled hostility and passive-aggressive moves, but there's bad news on the menu: Leo is suffering from advanced kidney disease and needs a transplant, pronto. Assuming a suitable match, will any of his loved ones consent to becoming organ donor?

This request gets a remarkably chilly reception, but all three blood relatives -- Bradley, David, and Gail -- agree, with considerable reluctance, to tests. (Susan, who is desperate to save her husband, isn't a match.) That's the most I can tell you, except to add that the surprising results cause a series of long-suppressed secrets to tumble, like so many dominoes, into open view, pushing both marriages to the brink and forcing Bradley to flee his squabbling elders.

The battery of shocker revelations keeps things lively, but Our Brother's Son is what Variety used to call a "sudser," with characters and dialogue that feel imported from a long-ago plot arc Guiding Light or Another World. There's no nuance or shading in the writing, just a ton of exposition followed by a series of bombshells that cue plenty of finger-pointing. As a dramatist, Gluck tends to tell rather than show, and many of his assertions are glaringly lacking in supporting evidence. For example, David tells the tormented Bradley, "You are a gift to this family." Well, a gag gift, perhaps; all we see of him is adolescent sulking unbecoming in someone his age. Leo adds, "I've been so proud watching you grow into a passionate, smart, kind young man." Wait -- who is he talking about?

The director, David Alpert, ensures that the actors hit their marks, but there's little to be done with characters that exist mostly as vessels of grievance. Liz Larsen wrings some laughs from Mindy's bad attitude -- Dubiously scanning Leo and Susan's redecorated home, she says, "Who knew there were so many shades of grey?" -- but when the penny drops, she instantly turns into a shrew. (She informs the ailing Leo, "Life's a bitch and then you die! Deal with it!") Allen McCullough's Leo makes a convincing medical case, plausibly declining from scene to scene. Dan Sharkey doesn't do much to suggest David's plentiful demons, but then neither does the script. That Leanne Hutchison's Gail is a cipher is hardly her fault; the same is true of Midori Nakamura as Susan. As Bradley, Harrison Chad has the heaviest lift, trying to make the audience care about this overaged callow youth.

The production looks great, thanks to Adam Koch's set, backed by a delicately painted drop depicting a tree garnished with autumn leaves, and Alan C. Edwards' innately tasteful lighting. One possibly unsolvable problem: The play consists of so many brief scenes in varied locations that you could retitle it Stop the Turntable, I Want to Get Off; it feels as if scenic transitions take up half of the ninety-five-minute running time. Anyway, Lindsay McWilliams' costumes feel appropriate and the sound design by Megumi Katayama and Nathan Leigh (the latter also composed the incidental music) is solid.

Our Brother's Son isn't boring, thanks to all those twists, but the characters are unidimensional, and their problems are scarcely credible. It's impossible to believe that these secrets remained buried for nearly a quarter of a century, and Gluck's ending leaves everyone dangling. The play does, I suppose, offer a valuable warning of sorts: Next time someone asks you about the permanent loan of a vital organ, ask yourself: What do I have to hide? After all, you don't want your life to become a soap opera, do you? --David Barbour

(11 May 2022)

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