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by Ralph Hammann on August 15, 2013

Blood Play
By Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, directed by Oliver Butler, made by the Debate Society, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Nikos Stage, through Aug. 18


It would be a gross understatement to say that Blood Play is the most unusual play of the Williamstown Theatre Festival season; indeed this curiosity left many patrons scratching their heads and expressing a different sort of “WTF.” The Debate Society’s manner of storytelling is somewhat elliptical, and we are never quite sure where we are going, but the pacing, hints of danger and offbeat performances of several actors strings keeps us, most of us, interested.

Emma Galvin in Blood Play, photo by T. Charles Erickson

Set in the early 1950s in the knotty-pine-paneled basement lounge of the new suburban home of a Jewish couple, the play opens as if it is a slightly unreal TV sitcom of that period. New homeowners Morty and Bev (Michael Cyril Crieghton and co-writer Hannah Bos, the latter expertly channeling ’50s housewife ditz) are scurrying about trying to protect their subterranean lair from water that is bursting from their plumbing due to the encroachment of still-growing roots from a willow tree that they have cut down. They are terribly concerned that their lounge will be the perfect place to impress their neighbors. Meanwhile, their son, Ira (beautifully played by Emma Galvin) is holding some sort of vigil in a pup tent that is visible from the basement window in Laura Jellinek’s set, which conveys comfort and hints of growing terror. Something wicked has happened to Ira, who has not gone off on a Junior Cherokee camping trip with his peers.

Next to Ira’s tent is the stump of the willow tree, the roots of which will figure into the play once again in its surreal last third, which offers nods to the films The Evil Dead (roots from dark forces) and Poltergeist (suburbias built on Native American burial grounds).

But it is the similarities or homages to plays by Edward Albee and Harold Pinter that dominate most of the play. Soon a spontaneous cocktail party forms with Bev and Morty’s neighbors, Sam and Gail (Hanlon Smith-Dorsey and Birgit Huppuch; Huppuch has an enjoyably steely presence), and a traveling photographer named Jeep (Paul Thureen in a performance of riveting oddity and awkwardness). As the bizarre cocktails lead to party games, we find ourselves in the territory of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and virtually any of Pinter’s plays of slowly growing and understated menace. Unfortunately, the Debate Society never achieves the impact of either of these two playwrights, and their play proves a rather bloodless affair with too many loose strands or wandering roots. But it is not without value.

As we listen to the quintet of adults babble in mundane dialogue and comport themselves like children whose prime objective is to fit in and be liked, the emptiness and repetitiveness of their existence is radiantly apparent. And as we sit gawking at their dull antics, which we eventually realize are not going to lead to any grand revelations or catharses, all but the most dedicated viewers of reality-show pabulum will recognize that this is merely a mirror of too much of our own cyclical and humdrum existence.

When the play shifts perspectives to that of Ira’s backyard tent, a threat of vengeance becomes pronounced. It is as if Ira, who may have been sexually abused by Gail and Sam’s boys, is tapping into a dark, subterranean force that the adults are unwilling to acknowledge. In Galvin’s controlled performance of the play’s most complex character, we feel that some terrible force is going to be unleashed on these suburbia dwellers, who have turned blind eyes to some injustice. WTF it all means, I am not certain, but it does intrigue.