“Blood Play” at The Bushwick Starr
Despite the title, there is no blood onstage in The Debate Society’s latest production (at The Bushwick Starr through October 27), unless you count some suspiciously hued rotten eggs that don’t make it into a drink. It’s the 1950s, era of the traditional nuclear family, suburban living, social conformity, and of course, cocktail culture.
The setting is the renovated basement rec room of Morty (Michael Cyril Creighton) and Bev (Hannah Bos), newly arrived transplants to suburbia. When their neighbor Sam (Hanlon Smith-Dorsey) and Jeep (Paul Thureen), an itinerant photographer, have a minor fender-bender in the driveway, Morty insists the men both come in for a restorative drink. Sam’s wife Gail (Birgit Huppuch), gussied up in a cow costume that matches her husband’s udder adorned overalls, swings by to pick him up for a fundraiser at their synagogue, and is reluctantly lured into staying. An impromptu, cocktail-fueled party ensues, driven by a manic energy as the five toss back drinks, plow through snacks Bev has prepared for her ladies’ gathering the next day, and entertain themselves with homemade games.
A sense of something not being quite right lurks at the edges of Blood Play, and the darker side emerges via Morty and Bev’s son Ira (Ronete Levenson), who is camping in the backyard instead of going on an overnight with his local Boy Scout troupe. We gradually discover why he’s stuck at home, and the last quarter of the play shifts directly to Ira, who delivers a somewhat rambling soliloquy from his tent outside on the lawn. Without giving away the plot, let’s just say the threads of outsiders, first-born Jewish son, and revenge come together, but this final scene lacks the polish and bite of what precedes it.
Problematic ending aside, The Debate Society has produced a quietly compelling drama by zooming in on every day, middle-class anxieties and insecurities. The writers (Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen) have consciously chosen to skip the Cold War, PTSD from WWII, repressed housewives, closeted homosexuality, or any of the other standard issues that have come to define the 1950s. Instead, the focus is on shifting social dynamics: Morty and Bev worry about fitting in and meeting the right people, and whether Ira will make friends in their new neighborhood.
The appeal and substance of Blood Play—from the writing to the acting—lies in the allusions and comments that are dropped, but not pursued. In many ways, the characters fulfill stereotypes, yet they each gradually acquire a depth that comes not from dialogue, but gestures, pauses, and underlying emotions. The credit for this goes to writers Bos and Thureen, who both give particularly richly-layered performances, and Oliver Butler’s astute direction. Why does it feel like a guilty pleasure to have an experimental theater group craft an overtly narrative play?