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Review: 'Beggars in the House of Plenty' at Theatre/Theater

March 5, 2009 |  1:45 pm

Ttbeg01"Your job is to kill me." When it comes to summing up the archetypal struggle of sons to free themselves from their fathers, you can't get more succinct than that taunt from the snarling patriarch in John Patrick Shanley's "Beggars in the House of Plenty."

When it comes to wringing the full spectrum of tortured emotions from Shanley's nakedly autobiographical 1991 memory play, you can't get more riveting than Larry Moss' finely-tuned production at Theatre/Theater. While occasionally lapsing into heavy-handed excess, the staging affords ample unleashed passion and the kind of performance precision that have made Moss a sought-after acting instructor.

In exploring his Irish American roots, Shanley purges family demons aplenty through an increasingly surreal blending of sense impressions, factual detail and psychodrama. Pent-up rage and outbursts of violence are the dominant chords, accented with off-the-wall humor, from the opening scene in which the author's stand-in, 5-year-old Johnny (played throughout by adult Chris Payne Gilbert in kid's sleepwear and Davy Crockett cap), indulges his budding fascination with pyromania.

Towering over Johnny's path to manhood is the ominous figure of Pop (Jack Conley, an immigrant butcher who's not only incapable of showing love but strives to beat every trace of it out of his household. In a harrowing performance, Conley's Pop brandishes a meat cleaver and shotgun as if they were extensions of his limbs, and undermines his children's self-worth in a brogue dripping with acid.

A terse soliloquy traces Pop's savagery to the generational violence that preceded him, but it doesn't excuse the damage he inflicts on Johnny and his older brother, Joey (David Gail). Although ex-Marine Joey seemingly has the tougher hide, it's the more sensitive and vulnerable Johnny who emerges in one piece.

Forsaking naturalism entirely in the final scene, Stephen Gifford's modular set transforms into a psychic excavation site for the climactic duel between the demonic Pop and his sons. And though the parricide here may be psychological rather than literal, the reality of Johnny's hard-won victory is evident in his ability to finally see past the dysfunctional shell of his mother (Francesca Casale, in a superb turn) to the hopeful young woman she once was. Lena Georgas convincingly plays the sister who escaped through marriage, while Denise Crosby brings hilarious hypocrisy to a nun spouting the kind of sanctimonious church doctrine that subtly enables a culture of violence.

-- Philip Brandes

"Beggars in the House of Plenty," Theatre/Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 29. $25. (800) 838-3006. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Caption: Chris Payne Gilbert and Jack Conley in "Beggars in the House of Plenty." Credit: David Zaugh