It’s no surprise to see Halloween trappings and decorations – a pumpkin here, a bowl overflowing with candy there – in a play called Trick or Treat. What is unexpected is just how many skeletons are in the closet in this twisty mixed bag of a play by Jack Neary at 59E59 Theaters through Feb. 24.
The production starring Gordon Clapp, of NYPD Blue fame, gets off to an intriguing enough start. The present-day action unfolds in a modestly appointed middle-class house in eastern Massachusetts, where doing what’s best for one’s family is what matters most. Johnny (Clapp), the patriarch who inherited the place from his dad, never lets you forget that.
But the Moynihans have seen better days. Johnny’s 64-year-old wife Nancy (Kathy Manfre) is battling Alzheimer’s, and her condition has worsened to the point where she can’t be left alone. Nancy confuses their daughter Claire (Jenni Putney) with Claire’s late sister Sharon, and can’t reckon with the fact that their son Teddy (David Mason) isn’t an 11-year-old. Why that specific age? No spoilers, but eventually all becomes clear – and it isn’t pretty.
The superior first act revolves around a desperate act by Johnny “for the family” as his kids and a nosy neighbor, Hannah (Kathy McCafferty), who shares rocky history with Teddy, collide in the Moynihan living room as trick-or-treaters come calling. “The kids expect it from us,” Johnny brags. “We’re the favorites in the neighborhood because of the big bars.”
The Moynihans are also famous for violent episodes. The truth about that comes out in the second act, which tosses out too many curve balls and tonal shifts for the play’s own good. Neary earns credit for pulling us in and keeping us guessing for a while, but Johnny confusing “Kevorkian” with “Kardashian” likely sounded more clever and amusing in the author’s head than it does on stage. And even if amnesia has often been used as a plot device, there’s something creepy about the way Nancy’s dementia is woven into the ever-darkening mystery.
Under the direction of Carol Dunne, performances are credible even when the story loses its grip. Clapp, a Tony nominee for the 2005 revival of Glengarry Glen Ross, is at home on stage. Putney lends particularly strong support. And Michael Ganio’s detailed set has just the right lived-in look, right down to a half-finished jigsaw puzzle. In the end, all of the plot pieces fit, but when it comes to a satisfying evening, the play is more trick than treat.