09/05/2013 06:57 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2013

First Nighter: Lucy Thurber's Five Hill Town Plays Progress From Must-See to Less-Need-to-See

David Van Asselt, the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater artistic director, and his associates may think they're doing scribe Lucy Thurber -- and theatergoers as well -- a big fave by simultaneously scheduling her five-piece cycle The Hill Town Plays at four Village locations. It seems unquestionably likely they figured they'd point out in one fell theatrical swoop how significant Thurber is.

I certainly concluded they were right as I left Scarcity, at the Cherry Lane. Although many reviewing colleagues had seen the potent family drama previously, I hadn't and was extremely impressed with the unflinching depiction of a lower-class family in which the abusive, labile mother (Didi O'Connell) and habitually drunk father (Gordon Joseph Weiss), make life miserable for their unusually intelligent, bent-on-escaping children, Billy (Will Pullen) and 11-year-old Rachel (Izzy Hanson-Johnston).

Exiting Where We're Born, at the Rattlestick--which I had seen before and which was the cause of my believing Thurber a highly promising playwright--I decided my assumption remained correct about what was serially unfolding before me. Thurber's vision of a group of moody, quick-to-anger friends, with bright and incipient lesbian Lilly (Betty Gilpin) the obvious protagonist, convinced me that Thurber was on to something not always available to audiences: proof that no matter how valiantly we strive, where we're born and how we're brought up inexorably dictates what our lives become.

It was with Killers & Other Family, at the Axis, that I began to question my belief in the efficacy of Van Asselt's intention. And here I should say I saw the play out of the chronological order in which Thurber probably would like them to be seen -- not that any half-way clever patron couldn't reckon the progression.

In this one, Elizabeth (Samantha Soule), a graduate student finishing her dissertation, is visited by menacing brother Danny (Shane McRae) and even more sinister ex-boyfriend Jeff (Chris Stack) as the two are on the run after the latter's having inadvertently killed a girl. Expecting Elizabeth to fund a Mexico getaway, Danny and Jeff are sticking around when Elizabeth's roommate and lover Claire (Aya Cash) returns from work. An ensuing bad time is had by all.

Perhaps not quick enough on the uptake as I should have been from the start, I began realizing that though Thurber has given her emerging heroine the names Rachel, Lilly and Elizabeth, they are meant to be the same (autobiographical?) person, a gifted young woman pursued by a past to which she'll be lucky not to succumb.

That's not all I commenced adding up. From play to play, there was the downing of multiple bottles of beer (mostly Rolling Rock but also in time Miller's and Budweiser). There was the incessant smoking. (It's too early for anyone in Thurber's cast lists to discover e-cigarettes.) There were the bouts of physical violence. (UnkleDave's Fight House takes care of all brawls but the less agitated ones in Stay, where J. David Brimmer is the "violence consultant.")

Not least, there's the lesbian seduction. So far in my viewings, there'd been two -- Lilly's Where We're Born tangle with good friend Franky (McKenzie Meehan) and Elizabeth's Killers & Other Family's smooching with Claire. The problem is that once the gay involvement is established in the former play, the carrying-on is predictable in the latter.

And on it goes through Ashville, at the Cherry Lane, where perhaps the title is a sly reference to the smoking that transpires -- although 16-year-old protagonist Celia (Mia Vallet) is regularly offered ciggies but nixes them. What she doesn't turn down and indeed initiates is a hay-roll with neighbor Amanda (Aubrey Dollar), when solicitous boyfriend Jake (Joe Tippett) isn't around, and neither is Amanda's man, Joey (George West Carruth).

It's the dull cycle-attendee who not only doesn't sense an imminent Celia-Amanda grope the second the two are alone but who also hasn't begun to tire of the beer-swilling and butt-tossing and body slamming that occur, as Celia's mother Shelly (Tasha Lawrence) and her new boyfriend-with-eyes-for-Celia Harry (Andrew Garman) complicate matters, as does James-Joyce-loving Joe (James McMenamin), their local drug dealer.

I haven't previously mentioned the reappearance of drug consumption, have I? Nor have I referred to the number of times in the plays, one character or another talks about the ability to "see" another for who or what he or she is or is thinking.

Needless to say, all of the above activities occur in Stay, at the New Ohio, where the still trapped heroine is successful short-story author Rachel (Hani Furstenberg, trailed by her interior thoughts, here called Floating Girl (Jenny Seastone Stern). The inevitable lesbian tumble this time is with student(!) and this frame's seer Julia (Mikaela Feely-Lehmann) -- while Harvard-trained brother Billy (McCaleb Burnett) drops in for a visit, along with Julia's supposed lover Tommy (Brian Miskell).

Notice that Rachel and Billy are here the same Rachel and the same Billy, who gets into Deerfield, in Scarcity. (Thurber never identifies the ostensibly Ivy League institution where Billy was an undergraduate.) The same Scarcity mom, Martha Lawrence, is heard leaving phone messages. She's played by Deirdre O'Connell, although there's no program explanation as to why O'Connell is Didi in Scarcity and her usual Deirdre here.

For those following the synopses of Thurber's annoyingly repetitious plays, let it be noted that the cycle -- in the tradition of Eugene O'Neill's unfinished series (More Stately Mansionsand A Touch of the Poet (the two finished), Horton Foote's Orphans Home Cycle and Robert Schenkkan's Kentucky Cycle) -- are, chronologically, Scarcity, Ashville, Where We're Born, Killers & Other Family and Stay.

Surprisingly enough, there's a moment in Stay, when the Floating Girl accuses Rachel of writing the same thing "over and over." Maybe Rachel listens, since by the end of the intermissionless drama, she seems ready to allow herself to be seen, but is Thurber, now teaching playwriting at NYC, listening?

There's nothing wrong in presenting a cycle about a character progressing from damaging childhood to escape from psychological entrapment adulthood. Indeed, it's a great idea. But the over-and-again Hill Town Plays are clearly not the way to do it.

I regret to say I departed the last one I saw, Stay not to second David Van Asselt implied goal heartily but vowing that -- much as I admire Scarcity and Where's We're Born, the actors in all five pieces and all five directors (Daniel Talbott, Jackson Gay, Caitriona McLaughlin, Karen Allen, Gaye Taylor Upchurch) -- it would be a long time before I want to see another Lucy Thurber play.