Trick or Treat Premieres at Northern Stage
What better night than Halloween—with its clash between the comforts of chocolate and the fear of things going bump in a black night—to reveal a family in crisis? Playwright Jack Neary pulls you into the middle in the world premiere of his play, Trick or Treat.
The set design by Michael Ganio tells you almost everything you need to know about the characters before their appearance on stage. The couch with the folded handmade afghan, a yet-to-be-finished jigsaw puzzle with only the corners filled in, a bowl of walnuts waiting to be cracked. Though the play is contemporary, a makeshift man cave in the living room’s corner houses a 1970s-era TV console with a generic Barcalounger drawn close. We hear the vocals of Bennett and see Sinatra on a vintage album cover. In a nod to the season, a carved jack-o-lantern shines with an expression that is grin or grimace. Johnny Moynihan (Gordon Clapp) shuffles in with a bowl of candy and turns on the porch light.
Johnny is worn, by decades of sweeping floors at the VA and by his one-man caretaking of his wife Nancy, who at 64, is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Trick or treaters arrive; the Moynihan house is famous for, as Johnny notes with pride, “giving out the big bars, not that cheap Walmart shit.” He strains to be jovial, but misses the cultural marks. His conversation with an unseen child about his costume produces the first humorous dialogue of the play. What’s a Justin Bieber, Johnny asks, and still doesn’t know.
Johnny has summoned his daughter Claire (Jenni Putney) to the family home. He’s impatient with the incessant doorbell and he’s pacing the floor. Claire arrives. In a maddeningly halting conversation, she lays out brochures about nursing homes, preparing to have the long postponed and unwelcome talk with her father about the inevitable. Johnny stops her short and blurts out the first of the play's surprises.
Katie Bruestle, Jenni Putney, David Mason, Gordon Clapp
Levity evaporates. The remainder of the first act is nothing short of brutal, and it all belongs to Clapp. Johnny recounts how he fell asleep inadvertently, something he "never, ever does," a dereliction of his unrelieved duty to manage Nancy. He finds her in a state of degradation and fear; she doesn’t recognize her husband of 48 years. He does the only thing he thinks could possibly make sense. He wants Claire to know that he was tender.
Claire and Johnny try to figure out what to do next, disagreeing about whether or not to call Claire’s brother, Teddy (David Mason), a local thuggish cop who is rumored to be the next chief of police. Meanwhile, the trick or treaters continue to interrupt. Claire’s annoyance with the kids on the porch draws in a nosy neighbor, Hannah (Katie Bruestle), who sniffs out that something is amiss in the Moynihan household. Teddy joins the scene and the family works clumsily to get the bulldozing Hannah out the door. Act One ends with action that would be an unforgivable spoiler if revealed, but it is a guaranteed jaw-dropper.
A less skilled playwright might have gone for the obvious and written a play about mercy-killing and the ravages of Alzheimer’s. And of course the audience may think that that is where Act Two is headed. It’s not, exactly. There are more plot twists, as this particular catastrophe begins to fray the edges of long-held family secrets. Johnny and Teddy hunker down in the kitchen as Claire wonders why and from what she is being excluded.
The role of Johnny Moynihan in Trick or Treat was written for actor Gordon Clapp. His performance is near-flawless as the patriarch of a family whom he has sought to protect at any cost. Tired, angry, out of touch, and at times not the brightest bulb, his tenacity in getting his family through is well-honed. He is true at every stage of his character—the still tender husband, the beleaguered caretaker, the father who wants to clear himself in his children’s eyes, the take-no-prisoners homeowner for whom the nosy neighbor is an alien needing to be cast out.
Jenni Putney’s Claire is the every-daughter, kind toward her parents but impatient. She convincingly portrays the awkwardness of being in her childhood home even as she must deal with the realities of her more upscale life during phone conversations with her journalist husband. Her arc from the helpful but sheltered daughter to one who feels the pain of her lost innocence is compelling. David Mason plays Teddy at a constant simmer with flashes of violence. His character is more opaque, in part because he appears to have no self-insight. Katie Bruestle inhabits her role of entitled busybody in a way that draws audible impatience from the audience. Her total deafness to the entreaties of the Moynihans to “get the hell out” will make you want to physically take the stage yourself to give her a shove.
There are moments of lightness. Some are near-malapropisms and Johnny’s confusion about cultural icons, as when he keeps mixing up Kevorkian with Kardashian. Most of the comedy centers around the normalcy that refuses to leave even in the face of a dilemma of this magnitude. As the clan ponders the weight of what has happened, for example, Claire fusses about her father not using a coaster under his drink. The siblings spit and scratch like the kids they used to be.
Family uber alles. Its secrets, designed to protect, always manage to come back around and bite, with unimagined consequences. It is no different for the Moynihans, who will be keeping their secrets nonetheless.
Trick or Treat is playing at Northern Stage from January 18 through February 5. For further information and to purchase tickets, please go to its website at www.northernstage.org
Photos by Jason Merwin.
An earlier version of this review previously appeared in Arts Fuse, a Boston-based online arts magazine.
Susan B. Apel, writer, ArtfulEdge