SCIENCE, SIBLINGS, SOUND AND FURY
This is a satisfying play. To take a painting analogy, it satisfies not in the way that a perfect still-life vase might, but more like a Kandinsky or Miro: wild streaks of colour, apparently random blobs, intriguing shapes and blurs all resolving into something thrilling to look at. Some may consider it a bit thematically crowded, greedily bagging a whole seasons’-worth of anxious playwrights’ themes: stepfamily and sibling issues, gene-editing and fertility, carers’ fatigue, terminal illness, patriarchy, gay parenthood, the politics of research-funding, Sarah Palin, Christian extremism, academic plagiarism, money, housing, Japanese knotweed, goats. American regions and their faint contempt for one another, and a bit of househusband- resentment. All that plus a streak of crypto-Oedipal desire and a few lines about cryptocurrency.
Too much? Not for me. I found Alexis Zegerman’s new play exhilarating, credible and suddenly deeply moving in its final catharsis (the last few minutes have two catharses and a disastrous revelation). Lisa Dillon cradles her sick child as if in a modern Pieta, with a perfectly grouped family shape bent around her all for once listening to the old man speaking (tranquilly for once) of miracles. Add to that the fact that it is often painfully funny, with sharp American west-coast wit and a blast of Tom Lehrer, and I left very happy.
Framing the pattern is the family’s head, the fictional Professor Richard Myers who is a biomedical genius and (alongside the real,mentioned, Steptoe and Edwards) a pioneer of in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Last time I saw Robert Lindsay onstage he was tipping his hat rakishly and shuffling a shoe in Anything Goes: now he is struggling to control the disease’s shaking, furiously resisting a wheelchair, and being spoon-fed by his younger third wife Meghan (Alexandra Gilbreath, every move showing anxious exhaustion). They are still in the family home, vast New York brownstone on the park which we see as a three-tier cutout, peeling wallpaper and all, its many rooms enabling small , economical filmic scenes between the various family members. In the last moments it even reveals it has an attic and a cellar.
Lisa Dillon as Dot, the eldest sibling, wants her father and disliked stepmother to do the sensible thing and live somewhere “appropriate”, but she also is rackingly desperate that it should provide a trust fund for her daughter, who has the dangerous autoimmune disease of the play’s title. Her twin brothers, triumphs of the father’s IVF technology, are chalk and cheese: Thomas is a gay artist with lines like “I’ve spent a lot of money in analysis to be able to say this”, and has has brought along an exasperated pragmatic MidWest partner, Philip. Anthony is a swaggering Californian entrepreneur who makes all but one of the party laugh: Alex Waldmann and Sam Marks play beautifully against each other. The one who doesn’t laugh is Nate, husband of Dot, who embarrassingly was disgraced for academic plagiarism, and has trouble with his more successful science-journalist wife as well as with her obsessive anxiety about their daughter. All these people – except Philip the wary newcomer to the crabby family scene – need something from Professor Richard.
Robert Lindsay, the powerful figure of the Professor, is stunningly good, both in his alarming temper and impatience (Thomas recalls his frightening heavy footsteps from childhood) and in moments of vulnerability. Once, early on when we mainly think him a troublesome stubborn gargoyle of an invalid, he turns his head suddenly to cradle his wife’s hand on his neck. He rants politically about the status of embryo research and its opponents – “I certainly did NOT unravel the fabric of American society!” Without authorly anger or agenda, and under the elegant direction of Roxana Silbert, in just under three enjoyable hours it lays before us the hundred messinesses of a 21st century family feeling its way to resolution. And for me that itself is a resolution.
Hampsteadtheatre.com to 30 April