September 18, 2008

When Brother Comes to Town, Trouble Follows




New off-Broadway play (or Broadway), at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St.

Written by Nicky Silver. Directed by Wilson Milam.

With Dylan McDermott, Maura Tierney and Scott Cohen.

Schedule: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $65. Ticket Central: 212-279-4200, or at

"Three Changes," which opened Tuesday night at Playwrights Horizons, is creepy - in the best sense of the word.

The drama by Nicky Silver is disturbing; it gets under your skin. You're kept off guard, because things never go quite the way you anticipate.

Things begin simply enough, with an attractive, middle-aged New York couple, Laurel (Maura Tierney) and Nate (Dylan McDermott), entertaining Nate's older brother, Hal (Scott Cohen).

Nate, an investment banker, and the scruffy-looking Hal have been out of touch for years, as Hal sought his fortune as a writer in Hollywood.

He created a TV series about a mother of six who moonlights as a bounty hunter and doesn't wear a bra, but, in his telling, he fell apart after the show flopped, losing himself to drug addiction. But he subsequently found God, and was rehabilitated.

Hal asks to sleep on the living-room couch, and, despite Nate's misgivings, he and Laurel allow him to stay, even buying him a computer so he can work on a novel.

It's obvious Hal is manipulative, maybe a con man. The stakes are raised, though, when he brings home Gordon (Brian J. Smith), a whiny, aggressive young hustler, to share his couch. Both men, it becomes clear, are sociopaths.

If the sense of dread that raises were the goal of the evening, Silver would have a first-rate, if familiar, thriller about innocents being menaced by vicious thugs who take over their lives.

But the playwright is after bigger psychological game.

Laurel and Nate have a chilly marriage. She's mourning her inability to have children - she's had three miscarriages - while he's having an affair with a not-very-bright young saleswoman (Aya Cash).

As the apartment, which had been pin-neat, begins to resemble a pigpen, with the visitors' clothes and trash strewn all over the place, the relationship among Nate and Laurel and Hal and Gordon becomes equally messy, and surreal.

Not everything in the story is equally compelling. Nate, in particular, remains an elusive figure, and his long-standing resentment of Hal seems no more than generic sibling rivalry.

But the fiercely good acting, and the taut direction of Wilson Milam, override such shortcomings, and make "Three Changes" a gripping experience.

It is also, at times, surprisingly touching.

Although Tierney's role is the least showy, the actress makes Laurel, and her needs, the nuanced emotional center of the play. The actress particularly shines in Laurel's aching monologue about her grief at not having children.

"Three Changes" is an unusual and challenging play. It stays with you.


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