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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.

 

"Natural Affection"  L to R: Alec Beard, John Pankow, Kathryn Erbe, Victoria Mack. Photo courtesy of Richard Hillman PR
“Natural Affection” L to R: Alec Beard, John Pankow, Kathryn Erbe, Victoria Mack. Photo courtesy of Richard Hillman PR