… It’s no Picnic … 

… but it’s engaging and suspenseful, and in this beautifully produced, well cast and acted production, it gives a chance to see a rarely produced play by William Inge.

Inge is, after all, one of America’s most successful and prolific playwrights – author of Come Back, Little Sheeba, Picnic (1953 Pulitzer Prize), Bus Stop, The Dark At The Top of the Stairs, as well as screenplays including Splendor in the Grass (1963 Academy Award for “Best Writing, Story and Screenplay”).

Perhaps Natural Affection‘s short run on Broadway was due to its opening during a NYC newspaper strike in 1962, but compared with Inge’s great successes, it’s a weaker play.  Inge’s starting point was a newspaper account of a violent, seemingly random crime, and in trying to fill in the blanks, he seems to have turned too programmatically to current  psychoanalytic ideas about the effects on sons of absent fathers and of mothering that runs hot and cold.

Sue, who’s pulled herself up by her bootstraps to become a successful buyer in a well-known Chicago department store is living with Bernie, a younger, and very handsome man, marginally able at selling Cadillacs.  Sue’s son, Donnie, returns from “The Farm,” i.e., reform school, wanting to stay with her — he has only a year left there and if she’ll keep him he doesn’t have to go back.  But Bernie doesn’t want this kid with the violent past crowding up their small apartment and inhibiting their sex life.

It’s Sue’s decision, though, because she pays the bills.

What will she do?  The Farm is brutal — Donnie has scars on his back from being beaten.  How can she possibly send him back?  She’s already plagued with guilt for giving him up to foster care in the beginning when she was a poor girl trying to make a living and Donnie’s father disappeared.

But she’s crazy about Bernie and afraid of spending her life alone.  He’s her last chance, she feels, and most of the time he’s quite a nice, agreeable guy, trying to pull himself out of the world of losers — his pipe dream is to own a car dealership.

Donnie, too, promises to be on good behavior.  It’s too bad that just as Donnie is settling in on the living room sofa, Bernie gets into an accident with a Cadillac he was demonstrating, and loses his job, depressing him and heightening his irritation with being dependent on a woman.  He says the accident wasn’t his fault — Inge doesn’t let us know whether or not we are to believe that.  Was it truly random? Or a loser’s claim that he’s a victim, in this case of chance?

The underlying tensions boil in the course of a Christmas celebration in which huge amounts of alcohol are consumed, Vince, the rich guy in the apartment next door, passes out, and Claire, his bored, sexy blond wife fails to seduce Bernie — this time, these alcohol fuelled shenanigans a prelude to the final, chilling eruption.

Kathryn Erbe, famous on TV as Detective Alexandra Eames on Law and Order: Criminal Intent, is brisk, capable, and vulnerable as the Sue, torn between her gorgeous younger lover and her natural — if insufficient — affection for her tormented son.  Erbe’s portrayal of the tense self control of this woman who made it on her own in a highly competitive field renders the emotional surges that overtake her all the more moving.

Alec Beard is charismatic as the good looking lover who approximates decency while not quite hitting the nail on the head.  Chris Bert is perfect as the lean, hungry looking reform school son, who takes after his mother in holding it all in — until he can’t any longer.

John Pankow as the rich next-door neighbor Vince is brilliant in a scene of unwinding into total drunkenness, a beautiful tour de force that the audience applauded.  Victoria Mack as Vince’s seductive wife transforms with concentration and subtlety a stereotyped character into a vivid, dangerous reality.

In Natural Affection, people are condemned to repeat the past and there are what the world sees as random violent events — both.

Natural Affection plays at the Beckett Theatre on New York City’s Theatre Row, West 42nd Street, through October 26, 2013.

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