Four English Exiles Return; One English Mastiff Lumbers

Richard Nelson’s Goodnight Children Everywhere is a disturbing and lovely domestic drama about the loss of childhood. With this fine American playwright, who has made a habit of understanding the English better than the English, we are invariably in good, nicely unsafe hands.

His latest play, first produced two years ago at his de facto home, the Royal Shakespeare Company, couldn’t be less safe. (The troubled heart of this family drama concerns incest.) The wry Anglo-American culture clashes of Mr. Nelson’s Some Americans Abroad , or his wickedly affectionate portrait of those aliens from another planet, the English in America, didn’t prepare us for the ambiguous tragic resonance of Goodnight Children Everywhere .

Exile-both literal and emotional-has been a haunting preoccupation of this dramatist. And with all themes of displacement and loss comes the yearning for a sense of place, for those attachments we cannot always rationalize but know as home. In Goodnight Children , the safe harbor of home has been dynamited by war.

Mr. Nelson takes as his starting point the England of September 1939, when, at the beginning of war with Germany, one and a half million people were evacuated from their urban homes to the countryside-750,000 of them children unaccompanied by parents. Some were sent to relatives in America or Canada, others were raised by foster families until the war ended. They became orphans of war.

Goodnight Children is set in a South London apartment in 1945 when four siblings are at last reunited after six years apart. Betty, who’s the eldest at 21, remained home during the war. Her two sisters, Ann, now 20, and Vi, 19, were boarded with a Welsh family. In an opening scene of awkward, giggly excitement that is wonderfully real and exact, the sisters await the return from Canada of their kid brother Peter, who’s now 17.

“I used to bathe you,” Betty says, looking with loving amazement at the self-conscious adolescent who could be a stranger. “He’s a man,” she adds. “Look at you. Look at you. Look at you,” Ann announces proudly at the scene’s end. But who do they actually see? And who-Mr. Nelson is asking-have they all become in the trauma of war and separation?

The natural order has lost its moorings, and nothing is quite as it seems. The siblings have grown up too soon, and Peter will travel from adolescence to manhood virtually overnight. The brother becomes the incestuous lover; a sister, the surrogate mother; a husband, the father in this fractured family in search of itself and a role to play.

It takes a bold, or foolish, dramatist to build a modern drama around three sisters (and a brother), for someone has done so before. But Mr. Nelson has pulled it off admirably. The restrained naturalism of the production of Playwrights Horizons struck me as unusual in its shifting, authentic emotion and spontaneity. In that wholly alive, understated sense, it’s “Chekhovian.” So much so that I looked in my Playbill after the first few scenes to check who the director could be. It was Richard Nelson, who’s scarcely directed before.

But the direction is half the play, whose strength resides in its emotional subtext and nuance. It surprises me that some reviewers have found the production’s rhythm too self-conscious. It’s as if stage naturalism is now so rare that it’s seen as unnatural. Mr. Nelson’s touch is sure. The erotic confusion and love between Peter and his pregnant, married sister, Ann, for example, is so well acted that even their incestuous attraction for each other seems dangerously reasonable.

Everyone in the cast is excellent-particularly Robin Weigert’s touchingly unconfident Betty, heading in her early 20′s toward the half-life of a spinster-nurse; Heather Goldenhersh’s Vi, caught between adolescent freshness and the certain future of a worldly failed actress; the besotted, incestuous Ann of Kali Rocha is a testing role made very humane by this talented young actress; and Chris Stafford’s Peter is, at 17, a taciturn mess, both brother and lover, boy and man, living now in tragic double exile. Most troubling of all in Mr. Nelson’s memorable Goodnight Children Everywhere , Peter, the prodigal son, has returned home to live in exile from himself.

To go from such an intelligent, shaded piece to a second-rate yuppie farce by Richard Greenberg is a stretch, and too much of one for me at the best of times. It’s said even by Mr. Greenberg’s ardent fans that he writes two kinds of play: good ones and bad ones. Hurrah at Last , a production of the Roundabout, at the Gramercy Theater, isn’t a good play.

It’s a self-important drag, actually-though it wants to be loved and worse, seen as “lovable” in a neo-farcical “madcap” kind of way. That’s why it has an enormous, dull dog in it. Dreyfus, the 200-pound English mastiff who plays frolicsome Thunder, is just big and dull and bored, exhibiting no appetite at all for the role. He puts in a token appearance, lumbering onstage to stare balefully at the audience. Then he’s sort of pushed into the wings to eat all the offstage antiques.

Dreyfus is meant to signal adorably serious fun, like the play. He needn’t be in the play. His performance is so lackluster that in a sense he isn’t there. We long for his understudy, Eve, to bound on and make something happen-wreak havoc, be pugnacious, be alive, wake us up, dare to take risks, shock us, astonish us, anything but the predictable yuppie beat of Mr. Greenberg’s deadening hero, a failed novelist who’s gay, embittered and obsessed with money.

Also appearing: our hero Laurie’s sister, who is infertile, and her husband, an inconsequential Irish multimillionaire; Laurie’s wealthy Jewish parents, the usual coarse stereotypes; and Laurie’s friend and film adapter, a successful dramatist-though God knows how-who’s in love with Laurie for some reason and married to a child-bearing woman who speaks no English.

In the first act, it takes Mr. Greenberg what seems like many hours to set up a lame visual gag in which the successful dramatist strips for Laurie to reveal all-rather than reveal how much money he makes. Geddit? In the second act, our hero ends up in the hospital having poisonous delusions. There was time enough to step back during his delirium to assess how comically likable the “witty” hero really is.

Let’s see: He hates his dumb ma (naturally), while seeing his old dad as a beaten borscht belt comic in disguise; he’s contemptuously ungrateful to sympathetic sis; he loathes and envies the successful; he’s consumed by other people’s money; he feels the world owes him a living; a failure, he is narcissistically impressed by no one except himself.

He’s less an interesting comic hero, more a tedious whiner. The talented director, David Warren, has shrewdly dressed up this nonsense as a spiffy farce out of a Williams-Sonoma catalogue. No fool he: If your attention drifts, you can shop. The cast-including Peter Frechette as the near hysterical Laurie and the delightful Dori Brenner keeping a very straight face as his mum-is accomplished. The dog isn’t.