Grief can take myriad and unexpected forms, making it ripe for both comedy and drama. In the world premiere production of “The Blue Deep” at the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s smaller Nikos Stage, playwright Lucy Boyle dives into both with mixed results.
The comic bits are clear, as in the slapstick moment when the mother, Grace, and her 20-something daughter, Lila, find themselves superglued together. Or when Lila, a smoker, catches her mother, who often douses Lila’s cigarettes, smoking pot with her longtime friends, Roberta and Charlie. In a gently clever play on words, Lila says, “Look who’s calling the pot — pot.”
Roberta and Charlie are the best characters in the play. They are lively and funny, and, unfortunately, almost completely irrelevant to the muddled mother-daughter drama.
Grace, played by Blythe Danner, is moving on from the death of her husband by having friends visit, tending to her Hampton’s estate and staying fit through an exercise that combines aqua-aerobics and Pilates called “poolates.”
But Grace doesn’t want Lila around. She calls Lila’s arrival “unexpected and uninvited.” Though Lila rightfully expresses dismay at that, the dramatic reason for Lila’s presence is never clear. That is, Lila needs to be there because she wants something from her mother, and not just because she’s broken up with her boyfriend, has a dead-end job and has nowhere else to go.
Lila’s murky motivations are exacerbated by a lack of information about the object of her and her mother’s grief, Bill. How long ago he died and who he was — what did he do to afford such a home in the Hamptons? — remain an unsatisfying mystery; even the fact of his death, so central to the play, only comes out in dribs and drabs until an explosive, emotional scene near the end of the first act, when Danner’s performance captures the essence of grief of a woman who hated watching her husband die, but would do anything to touch his hand one more time.
The acting throughout the production is top notch, especially Becky Ann Baker and Jack Gilpin as Roberta and Charlie. Bob Balaban’s direction keeps the play moving. Andrew Boyce and Takeshi Kata’s set design is gorgeous, with a raised deck, a yard and even a corner of an in-ground swimming pool downstage. The pool, however, may also be a directorial misstep, because when action takes place there, only audience members in the front row or balcony have an unobstructed view.
Knowing the playwright is the daughter of the acclaimed actor Peter Boyle, who died in 2006, makes an autobiographical reading of the work inevitable. Lucy Boyle shows a deft hand at creating characters and scenes, but seems too close to the subject at the heart of this place to have the kind of distance necessary to make the drama clearer and less forced.
“The Blue Deep”
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Nikos Stage, ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance of Williams College, 1000 Main St., Williamstown, Mass.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes, with one intermission
Continues: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; Matinees, 2 p.m. Thursday, 3:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m Sunday Through July 8
Info: (413) 597-3400; http://www.wtfestival.org