Modern Families, and Unhappy Ones: A Christmas Story Is a Surprise Gift, The Twenty-Seventh Man Is Brutal and Poignant, The Piano Lesson Revival Is Perfectly in Tune

'Giant' is epic American history, 'The Good Mother' never quite reaches boiling, 'Murder Ballad' is harmless fun

But is anything more quintessentially American than a saga of Texas and oil, family and loyalty, greed and racism, tradition and change, big vistas and small minds? It’s the stuff of Edna Ferber’s epic 1952 novel Giant, now an epic and excellent Michael John LaChiusa musical at the Public Theater.

Together with playwright Sybille Pearson, Mr. LaChiusa has created a beautiful and important near-opera of 20th-century America. It is both a family story—the sprawling Benedict clan, centered on the rancher Bick Benedict (a marvelous Brian D’Arcy James, who is finally again allowed to do more than make salads and be cuckolded), his East Coast intellectual wife, Leslie (an equally good Kate Baldwin), and their two kids, a bookish boy called Jordy (Bobby Steggert) and his tomboy sister, Luz (Mackenzie Mauzy)—and a broader look at a society.

It is, in that respect, and in its setting and some of its themes, not entirely dissimilar to the Reagan-era TV fantasy Dallas, if with less extravagant hairdos. (If it were up to me, I’d have jettisoned the snippet of dialogue about a pillow embroidered “JR.”) But this rises far above soap opera, not least because of the delicate and sensitive portrayals of those family relationships. Bick and Leslie lose hold of each other, but they settle into an awkward, ongoing silence, not an explosive divorce. Bick can’t understand Jordy, and is disappointed by him, but he also never rejects him.

Michael Greif’s staging suspends the orchestra over the stage, calling special attention to Mr. LaChiusa’s lush score and the 17-piece orchestra playing it, much as the retracting Vivian Beaumont stage highlighted the music in the 2008 revival of South Pacific. But by cutting the height of the stage in half, Mr. Greif has also, paradoxically, made the playing space seem bigger—a long, wide horizon, running on forever in the distance. On a tiny downtown stage, it’s wide-open America.

The Good Mother, in a New Group production at Theatre Row, is another family story, but instead a very intimate one.

Gretchen Mol plays Larissa, who is the titular good mother, or is at least trying to be a good one. She’s single and struggling, but she’s got a house, just over the Bronx line in Westchester, and her own business, and is dedicated to her autistic daughter. She also has a history as an addict who spent time as a teenager in a support group for troubled youths, and she may or may not have had an inappropriate relationship with the group’s leader, Joel (Mark Blum), an unorthodox therapist. There are also appearances by Joel’s troubled son, Angus (Eric Nelsen), whom Larissa accuses of sexual impropriety toward her nonverbal daughter and who accuses Larissa of sexual impropriety toward him; Jonathan (Darren Goldstein), the trucker Larissa gets involved with; and Buddy (Alfredo Narciso), Larissa’s long-ago ex, also from the support group, who’s now a cop on the verge of making lieutenant.

The play, written by Francine Volpe and directed by Scott Elliott, spends its time slowly revealing different takes on these different potential scandals, with no one’s version quite aligning with anyone else’s. Despite its tone of building dread, however, it never reaches the climax you feel you’re waiting for. Rather, we struggle through, engaged and curious, trying to piece everything together. Eventually we do, sort of, but we also don’t. Just like Larissa—which may be the point.

Murder Ballad, at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Off Off Broadway space in City Center, is a straightforward love triangle, performed as a rock opera. There’s not a lot of complexity to it, but thanks to the driving bar-band rock-’n’-roll score by composer and co-lyricist Juliana Nash, the intimate environmental staging by director Trip Cullman, and knockout performances by Will Swenson, as an obsessed downtown bar owner, John Ellison Conlee, as an uptown poet-turned-family man, Karen Olivo, as the woman who marries one but can’t forget the other, and Rebecca Naomi Jones, as the bar singer who narrates their story, it’s an intense, riveting 90 minutes.

Julia Jordan wrote the book and co-wrote the lyrics, and, in a form that demands archetypes rather than characters, there’s not much depth. But Mr. Cullman’s in-your-face direction—there’s a bar at center stage, many audience members sit at café tables, and the cast roams among the audience—and the immense talents of these top-notch singing actors (Ms. Olivo won a Tony for West Side Story; Mr. Swenson was nominated for one for Hair) combine to pull you into a quick, gripping tale.

That, and a tight four-piece rock band onstage never hurts.

editorial@observer.com

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