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A CurtainUp Review
The Sister

"I am so thankful to you, Leanne, for letting me be your sister and for putting up with the fact that I exist. And I also thank Bob, from whom all good things come, to whose eternal beneficence I owe my whole existence. Where would I be if it wasn’t for you two?"— Colleen
The Sister
Levi Morger & Erin Mallon. (Photo by Simone Eymann)
She’s known as the Sister, a fittingly depersonalized name for a woman treated like an animal in her family’s home. Colleen (Erin Mallon) lives with her sister Leanne (Alley Scott) and brother-in-law (Jeb Kreager) in their beach bungalow, where she’s meant to keep silent and obediently tend to a hulking, meaningless device called simply “the machine.”

Things change when Colleen runs off with their eccentric neighbor, Terry (Levi Morger), as Bob and Colleen work to renovate the home’s living room. But while the characters in Eric John Meyer’s confusing new play go through some drastic transformations in the course of just over an hour, they remain as half-baked as that unfinished room. That’s because The Sister is composed around themes more than characters, symbols more than reality.

This is a play about power and love — specifically, the pain we inflict on others to maintain the artifices of our own broken relationships. And while the characters never feel quite real, their suffering does. It is so tangible, in fact, it’s almost impossible to enjoy the play as it’s billed as a “jet black comedy.” With that lightness missing from its core, what remains is an unflinchingly dark portrait of human nature. Theatergoers looking for a reward at the end of that tunnel might find themselves grasping at air.

When Colleen suddenly leaves, the fabric of Bob and Leanne’s fragile relationship unravels. Bob’s testosterone-fueled rage, once directed at Colleen, changes targets. Leanne now assumes the role of the subjugated (even donning the dog collar once reserved for Colleen). She and Bob both, eventually, revert to an animal existence as they drive each other crazy. As Leanne crawls on her hands and knees and barks like a dog or cowers in fear of her tyrannical husband, our impulse is not, as intended, to laugh, but rather to squirm in our seats.

Kreager plays the family’s volatile patriarch with disarming flexibility, one moment presenting a false sense of husbandly goodness and the next showing us his true dictatorial colors. This range is on full display when Bob and Leanne discover Colleen’s disappearance. Bob immediately calms Leanne’s nerves, wrapping her in a tight embrace. But when Leanne wants to dance, Bob won’t loosen his grip, quickly turning the situation into an explosive confrontation. Kreager pulls it off commendably.

Now living with Terry, Colleen flourishes in the brilliance of what might be her first experience of kindness. Most of the laughs are here, in the pair’s hackneyed expressions of love (“I think your eyes are like these two big reflectors on the back of a boat, and all I can see are those two reflectors telling me how to follow you home,” Terry pines). They are strange bedfellows indeed, and Mallon and Morger admirably make the most of this small comedic window.

It seems that Colleen has moved on. But that façade crumbles when Colleen asks Terry to work The Machine. “Somehow I feel it would ease my pain to know that someone was out there doing something like that,” she says. “It would make me feel less like my life was a waste.” Terry refuses, and Colleen returns to Bob and Leanne’s home, begging to return to her old life.

The Sister is played too straight to shake away the seriousness of Bob’s cruelty. As the characters onstage degrade and humiliate each other, dread and discomfort settles in a thick, toxic smog hanging over the theater.

Realism, it seems, is not Meyer’s priority. But while that propensity for experimentation had a dramatic payoff in his 2010 one-man monologue, Not Winehouse, there’s no such retribution here. As the story winds down, we hope for a moment to make sense of the destruction. It doesn’t come. Instead the action comes to a crashing halt in the play’s baffling conclusion. It’s just the last of many strange lurches in this ill-constructed machine.

The Sister by Eric John Meyer
 Directed by Jess Chayes
Cast:  Jeb Kreager (Bob), Erin Mallon (Colleen), Levi Morger (Terry), Alley Scott (Leanne)
Set Design: Sara C. Walsh
Costume Design: Deanna R. Frieman
Lighting Design: Derek Wright
Sound Design: Asa Wember
Associate Sound Design: Kyle Moore
Stage Manager: Sarah Schoofs
Running Time:  70 minutes
New York Theatre Workshop's 4th Street Theater, 83 East 4th Street,, 212-780-9037
Through 4/13/13
Performance times: Wednesday - Saturday at 7:30pm with an added show Sunday, March 24 at 7:30pm
Ticket cost: $18
Reviewed by Jordan G. Teicher at March 27 performance.

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