Talk about family secrets and lies! Jack Neary’s Trick or Treat comes bearing a ton of them. During the first 20 minutes or so of his 140-minute-including-intermission drama—or is melodrama ultimately the more appropriate description?—it looks and feels as if the playwright is on to something strong, something meaningful.
Johnny Moynihan (Gordon Clapp) has been lovingly tending his Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife Nancy for some time, but as a result of an incident only a few hours before the lights come up on his eastern Massachusetts home—in a geographic area where people “pahk the cah in Hahvahd yahd”—he’s made a tough decision.
In other words, with Trick or Treat–first presented by White River Junction, Vermont’s Northern Stage and now imported—Neary appears to be addressing a difficult problem receiving increasing attention these days in life and literature. The playwright seems to be tackling something head-on that too often goes unspoken out of uncertainty and embarrassment.
More power to him for that. Trying to carry on a Halloween tradition for which the Moynihan house is “famous”—the generous occupants hand out unusually sizable treats—Johnny has to abruptly abandon the yearly fun when daughter Claire (Jenni Putney) arrives after being summoned.
Trying to cajole Johnny into explaining why he had been crying on the phone—he claims he was only “whimpering”—Claire impolitely gets rid of the trick-or-treaters so’s her father will concentrate on describing what has mysteriously transpired in the house. (Michael Ganio designed the welcoming set).
Here, however, a reviewer’s detailing the unpleasant developing activities would constitute an out-sized spoiler—although many audience members likely will have guessed what it entails.
Now, though, is when the dramatic house of cards Neary is constructing starts to shiver and shake. Neighbor Hannah (Kathy McCafferty) arrives as fire-engine-red as her hair to complain about Claire’s scaring off the trick-or-treaters. Before Johnny and Claire can get rid of the nosy and noisy interloper, son Teddy (David Mason), a cop evidently about to become local chief of police, thunders in.
Though Johnny has striven to keep his family together over the years, all sorts of divides have developed, and now they tumble out helter-skelter. Claire has an Italian husband. “Why couldn’t you marry an Irishman?” Johnny demands in his New England Irish accent. That unseen hubby edits a local paper critical of Teddy’s reputation as overly hot-tempered.
And that’s the least of it. Angry questions begin being hurled furiously as to whether Teddy, claiming ignorance of Johnny’s misdeed, knew about it before Claire did, and if so, why. How come Hannah, a long-ago Teddy girlfriend (yet threatening to register as an extraneous figure), is kept on site? What is the reason for her continued resentment of both Teddy and Johnny. What really happened to deceased daughter and sibling Sharon? Hardly incidentally, Trick or Treat complications ratchet up even more alarmingly when a fifth character (Kathy Manfre) materializes as the concluding first-act coup de théâtre.
Momentarily shocking as that is, it may be the one plot bump that eventually undoes the entire piece. All that’s troubling about the Moynihans is revealed by the time Tyler M. Perry’s lights black out. But rather than producing catharsis, the multiple secrets laid bare and lies exposed amount to something more like unintended parody. No one in the audience with which I underwent Neary’s theatrical onslaught was LOLing, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that any number of patrons were stifling laughter in deference to the actors.
That quintet plays the drama—all right, the melodrama—according to the frenzy the script increasingly demands, and director Carol Dunne guides them accordingly. Clapp, not seen in Manhattan often enough (he has his Emmy for NYPD Blue), does whatever he can—and more—to lend gravitas to the work. So do the others, but ultimately, they’re up against it.
In the final analysis, Trick or Treat may be trick, but it’s definitely not treat. A shame, since the play begins so promisingly.
Trick or Treat opened January 20, 2019, at 59E59 and runs through February 24. Tickets and information: 59e59.org