Alcoholism, incest, murder, and repressed homosexuality. It’s all in a day’s work for the current company of TACT (The Actor’s Company Theatre) – and the work they are doing is of exceptional quality in their gripping revival of William Inge’s “Natural Affection”. Under Jenn Thompson’s keen direction, this cast beautifully handles the nuances of Mid-westerners haunted by their pasts and even more fearful of their futures.
From the moment we hear brooding trumpet strains and watch the curtains rise on a 1960s mod Chicago apartment, (perfectly designed by John McDermott), we realize that we are about to embark on a journey with smoldering characters who will soon detonate. “Natural Affection” opens with Sue Barker, a single mother who works from home and tends to the constant needs of her misogynistic, live-in boyfriend, Bernie Slovenk ; think Don Draper meets Ralph Kramden. Sue is cautiously optimistic that her son, Donnie, is returning home for Christmas. Her boy has been away at reform school and isn’t exactly the picture perfect portrait of emotional well-being. In fact, his picture becomes blurrier and more dangerous as the story unfolds. The three unsuccessfully attempt harmonious living down the hall from the Brinkmans, swinging neighbors who have all the time in the world for frivolous parties and orgies, but hardly a second for introspection.
Inge’s works have always focused on protagonists who are yearning for a better life or for sweeter days past, similarly echoing Thoreau’s observation that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation”. In his other plays, including “Bus Stop” and “Picnic”, the level at which this sense of desperation existed were high. In “Natural Affection”, Inge’s plea for characters to discover meaning, purpose, and fulfillment is dire. Fortunately, we are treated to an acting ensemble that understands this and delivers it with laser focused acuity.
Alec Beard is excellent as Bernie Slovenk and dishes out a balanced combination of masculinity and juvenile callowness. Stage veteran John Pankow’s Vince Brinkman is a scene stealer. His second act shenanigans begin with some much welcome comic relief but soon merge into a territory of pathos. Victoria Mack is a stand-out as his younger, attractive would-be model wife, Claire. Chris Bert is heartbreaking as Donnie, a broken sparrow on an endless search for his mother’s affection. While the company plays like a haunting symphony, it might be even more in sync without Kathryn Erbe’s less mechanically delivered and flubbed lines. Erbe certainly has a commanding state presence and an authentic 1960s demeanor but in the performance this reviewer saw, I almost got the feeling she was either responding to her fellow actors on auto-pilot or struggling to find her next line.
In 2012, The Wall Street Journal named TACT “Best Company of the Year”. It is exciting to see their momentum continue with “Natural Affection” . With the good sense to unearth this overlooked treasure, they have presented us with a provocative and important theatrical piece of mindful permanence.
“Natural Affection” runs Off Broadway through Oct. 26th. at the Beckett Theater , 410 West 42nd Street. Tickets are available at the box office or online: https://www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/Natural-Affection/Overview?&aid=ven000193900.