Writer: Bernard Kops
Director: Jack Serio
Reviewer: Carrie Lee O’Dell
At almost 95 years old, English Playwright Bernard Kops has had a decidedly prolific career. He has written over 40 plays, nine novels, ten books of poetry, two autobiographies, and numerous radio plays. His latest play, The Dark Outside, is enjoying its world premiere at Theater for the New City after a staged reading at London’s National Portrait Gallery in 2020. Jack Serio directs.
In The Dark Outside, the siblings of a London family come home to celebrate their father’s birthday. Their neighborhood is changing, though; crime is up and real estate agents frequently drop by to see if the family wants to sell their house. Paul (Austin Pendleton), the paterfamilias, is a former tailor who lost his arm in a car crash. He thinks moving might not be a bad thing, but his American-reared wife Helen (Katherine Cullison) loves their home and never wants to leave. Paul and Helen’s children, Sophie (Brenna Donahue), Ben (Jesse McCormick) , and Penny (Kathleen Simmonds) all bring their outside problems into the birthday celebration. Sophie, the youngest, is clearly suffering from depression and anxiety while her brother Ben is using misogyny as a means of coping with a messy divorce. They both resent Penny, the eldest, who is doing quite well and seems ready to share her wealth with anyone who will accept money and advice from her. During the course of the day, the family celebrates Paul’s birthday and everyone shares secrets, some explosive and some less so. A constant in the world of the play is the old mulberry tree in the garden; Paul, Katherine, and Ben all find time to go to the garden and tell the tree their fears and secrets. In the end, there remains a fear of unsavory elements outside of the home, but the family looks to the future with hope.
The cast of The Dark Outside is clearly talented; veteran performers Auston Pendleton and Katherine Cullison have real chemistry as a long-married couple that is still in love. Brenna Donahue, Jesse McCormick, and Kathleen Simmonds ably rise to the challenge of sharing the stage with them. Technical elements are also quite strong, in particular Walt Spangler’s minimal set and Keith Parham’s lighting. Sadly, Bernard Kops’s script leaves much to be desired. Though the themes of mortality and change are timely, much of the play feels like we are waiting for the next person’s bombshell secret. With the exception of Sophie’s revelation for the reasons for her depression, most of the admissions fall rather flat. The dialogue is laden with exposition that feels very strange for a family that is this close. Everyone is prone to reciting poetry or breaking into song. Folk songs, protest songs, children’s songs, bawdy parody songs–they are all fair game for this family and it gets old very quickly. Director Jack Serio excels in creating gorgeous tableaus with the actors and the minimal set, but all of the conversations between two people play entirely in profile. While connection between the characters is important, we often lose what their faces communicate when they are in profile.
There are undoubtedly audiences who will enjoy The Dark Outside. Folks who enjoy plays with a strong focus on family dynamics and changes that come with age may well find much to commend it. Chances are good, however, that many audience members will find themselves dreading yet another family sing-along or confession to a tree.
Runs until 28 November 2021 | Photo Credit: Emilio Madrid