When the Rain Stops Falling, the intriguing, confusing and ultimately moving new play by Andrew Bovell that opened at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater Monday night, opens with a fish falling from the sky during a torrential downpour. The rain continues for the duration of the often-inscrutable play, and all of the characters either prepare or eat fish soup. At the end of the play, the fish from the first scene is served for lunch. By then, you will have finally figured out what has transpired (more or less), and you will be impressed. But you will still have no idea what the fish is supposed to represent.
Andrew Bovell’s play, which debuted in Adelaide, Australia, in 2008 and played in Sydney and then London before arriving in New York, recounts the tangled history of an English-Australian family over an 80-year period, from 1959 to 2039. I’m reluctant to reveal too much of the story, because the play’s point is its slow, careful revelations. One father is exiled by scandal; another has run off in fear. One mother is lost to alcohol, one to disease, one to the sea. Two sons are searching for their fathers. There are tales of historical natural disasters, and there is, always, that rain. (“Still, there are people drowning in Bangladesh, so we shouldn’t complain,” the characters say, one of several repeated phrases.)
It is a sad play, full of tragedy and cataclysm; it is a good play, precisely, meticulously crafted; and it is a hard play, requiring real work from its audience. But when it ends and everything has been revealed, it is exhilarating.
The episodic exposition is even more tangled than that family tree: We meet different versions of the same characters—and different characters with the same name—in a series of overlapping, nonsequential scenes. For its first half-hour, When the Rain Stops Falling is opaque, but it’s also compelling. We don’t know what’s going on, but we’re held rapt by the fluid, intelligent writing and excellent acting, and we’re eager for the play to lock together, to begin to reveal itself.
Finally, at about the hour mark—When the Rain Stops Falling runs a bit shy of two hours and plays without an intermission—all those disparate building blocks finally begin to slide into place, making sense of the story and rewarding our patience. We’ve gone from curious to bored to fascinated.
Director David Cromer places David Korin’s fairly minimal sets—basically, the same kitchen scene, reused as different homes in different cites at different times—on a rotating stage within a rotating stage, keeping the action circling around itself just as the script circles around the truth. Phrases, ideas, and behaviors repeat themselves, circularly—we can’t get away from history, Mr. Bovell is saying; we always carry it with us.
“Fish don’t fall out of the sky,” a young character tells his newfound lover. “And fathers don’t leave their children, and mothers don’t drown themselves in the sea.” They’re all ridiculous, improbable, terrible. But they all happen in When the Rain Stops Falling, and they must be dealt with. That’s life, the play seems to say: Shit happens, and you never forget, but then you move on.
CHRISTOPHER WALKEN IS PERHAPS the ideal Martin McDonagh star: a uniquely offbeat actor who specializes in a certain air of menace, now paired at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre with a uniquely offbeat playwright who specializes in very profane, very violent horror-comedies.
And when the curtain comes up—really, it gets pulled aside, like a tattered drape—on Mr. Walken in the center of a beautifully dingy hotel room (sets and costumes are by Scott Pask) at the start of A Behanding in Spokane, everything seems to go together flawlessly: the craggy face, the crummy room, the depraved shenanigans sure to come.
They’re there from the beginning. Mr. Walken’s Carmichael is missing his left hand, stolen by rednecks 47 years earlier, and a couple of small-time crooks trying to make some cash have offered to sell it back to him. One of them is locked in the closet, whimpering (at least until Carmichael shoots him, or near him), and the other is out getting the hand—which turns out to have been stolen from a local museum, an aboriginal hand that clearly didn’t come from the pale (and, as it turns out, racist) Carmichael.
Things go badly wrong, as they tend to, and life-threatening hijinks ensue, abetted by the hotel clerk (a brilliant Sam Rockwell), who disdains his job, hopes for some drama in his life and has a bit of a crush on Marilyn (Zoe Kazan, a bit screechy), the female half of the con-artist couple. There is also Marilyn’s African-American boyfriend, Toby (Anthony Mackie), who tries to talk tough but frequently breaks down in tears, and offstage, Carmichael’s mother, a porn-loving racist who may or may not have broken ankles, who phones a few times.
A Behanding in Spokane is laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s also a bit disappointing. Unlike many of Mr. McDonagh’s earlier works, equally funny and typically gorier, it doesn’t seem to have any deeper point than the comedy. It’s also the first time he has set a play in the United States, which I think detracts: The skewed worlds he creates make sense on a remote, fog-shrouded Irish island; in a nondescript American city, the unreality bumps up against reality. And he doesn’t quite have an ear for American dialect: His working-class grafters use plenty of “ain’ts,” but they also use a few “mightn’ts.”
But Mr. Walken does his Walken thing marvelously and, for this play, perfectly. Mr. Rockwell is a smart-ass, manic delight. And Mr. McDonagh keeps the audience laughing. He has delivered more before, and he will again, but A Behanding in Spokane is simply an entertainment. And, in the end, for that he deserves a hand.
THERE’S NO PARTICULAR REASON you would want to see The Miracle Worker, which was revived at Circle in the Square last week. You know the story; you know how it ends. (Wa-wa!) And William Gibson’s play, first produced on Broadway in 1959 and adapted from a TV drama he’d written two years earlier—it subsequently became a feature film and then two more TV movies—only occasionally rises to the level of a good after-school special.
But there’s Abigail Breslin. The 14-year-old Little Miss Sunshine star is spectacular. In more than two hours onstage as the blind, deaf-mute Helen Keller, she never gets to say a word. But her acting is sensitive and profound and beautifully conveys Helen’s intelligence, frustration, alienation and the joy she gets from occasional bits of comprehension. It would be easy for Helen to be a caricature, a lurching, grunting wild child, but in Miss Breslin’s hands she’s not; she’s a person, a horribly frustrated person.
Annie Sullivan (played here by a fine Allison Pill) saved Keller. Miss Breslin, as Keller, saves this show.
Follow Jesse Oxfeld via RSS.