09/13/2013 10:45 am ET Updated Nov 13, 2013

The Art of Casual Brutality

Once upon a time, the thought of viewing six hours in one sitting of, say, Tony Kushner's epic Angels in America seemed a kind of brilliant folly, a once-in-a-lifetime theatrical event. Today, as we binge-watch series on DVD or compulsively stream shows on Netflix, our hunger for content seems only to grow the more we feed it. Which makes the decision to simultaneously showcase five works by a young playwright named Lucy Thurber an idea whose time has come.

It's rare to see a female voice granted so substantial an airing, produced with such consistent seriousness of purpose -- rarer still to see an exploration of Thurber's particular mix of concerns. In her thematically linked Hill Town series, housed in various downtown Manhattan theaters, lower-class struggle butts up against clueless wealthy entitlement; lesbian yearning rises from a cauldron of brute machismo, and high-toned philosophizing pierces the fog of stoned self-medication.

A single question runs through all the plays: Will the young woman at the center of each tale ever be safe from the family that is supposed to protect her?

Scarcity, the first piece, introduces us to the hardscrabble environment that will forge the girl whose life we see develop in various permutations throughout the series -- in this case a largely ignored and meant-to-be spookily prophetic fifth grader named Rachel. In a universe circumscribed by extreme poverty and a lurid lack of parental boundaries, Rachel aims every fiber of her being at trying to find to a better life than the one in which she's trapped, but there's only room in her family for one child to be saved, and it won't be Rachel. Though she fastens all hopes on the one person whose love seems true and constant, her older brother Billy, her adoration doesn't prevent her realizing that he is too busy chasing his own shot at freedom to rescue her.

Scarcity is worth seeing for the complex melodrama of its family dynamic and for two powerful performances: the always galvanizing Deirdre O'Connell, as the deeply flawed mother who may love her daughter but who only has space in her heart for her son -- and whose addiction to the fleshly pleasures provided by her drunken, useless, violent husband blinds her to the harm she is doing both her children; and Natalie Gold, as the naively well-meaning teacher whose fervor to save a bright young man is compromised by her own need.

The vital roles of Rachel and Billy, characters who should be both vulnerable and feral in their attempts to escape their suffocating, dire existence, are here portrayed by hardworking but opaque young actors who lean more heavily on anger and depression than a more potent stew of fear and childlike determination. Each could benefit from a more inflected interpretation, one fusing defenselessness and longing with sweetness, even hope. Izzy Hanson-Johnston's Rachel is almost preternaturally adult; and as the boy who resents his power over women but will exploit it to save his own life, Will Pullen does not naturally evoke the kind of brilliance and beauty that bedazzles all female observers.

In Scarcity, the mother who should be looking after Rachel sees only the men in her life: the husband whose seductive charms she alone is susceptible to, the son through whom she channels all her dreams for the future. Ashville's boozy, desperate mother is an equally mesmerizing train wreck who can't see past her own appetites to choose her 16-year-old daughter Celia over the girl's clinging older boyfriend -- or recognize the dangers her various choices create for her child.

Ashville, play No. 2, has its characters intersect on a clever set that evokes lives piled on top of one another with little privacy or relief. Yet like a slab of marble waiting to be chiseled away to its true essence, the play devolves into a series of shapeless scenes that unfold to increasingly lesser effect. Mia Vallet's lost, unformed Celia is too young for the life she is leading; her character's actions would have made more sense if she were a few years older, even 17. At least two of the female characters' boyfriends could easily be winnowed to fleeting or offstage turns, particularly the mother's lover, whose dramatic reason for being -- to highlight the unsafe ground Celia has grown up inhabiting -- is inexplicably muddied as Celia's mother fails to register a sinister situation she drunkenly stumbles into.

Thurber excels at evoking the fraught mother-daughter relationship; the scenes between Celia and her mother (a very fine Tasha Lawrence) and those that showcase Celia's developing fascination with her coolly seductive female neighbor brim with more life and heat than any between the women and their men or among the men. Ashville's four male characters seem caught in an endless loop, drinking, doping and pontificating in ways more naturalistic than dramatically compelling. Even the glimmers of wit from James McMenamin's standout James Joyce-loving drug dealer get lost in the speechifying surrounding him. A more streamlined and focused narrative would help make Ashville an intriguing second lap of Thurber's journey.

In the erotically charged Where We're Born, our heroine is Lilly, a 19-year-old college girl who returns, possibly for the last time, to the bosom of her family -- her loving cousin Tony. Born also weighs down its tale with static scenes of inebriation and male posturing that sap the drama even as they viscerally convey the world the heroine has been formed by and is still attempting to flee. Yet the play has a vivid, bristling pull; its themes of love and betrayal unfold in enjoyably twisty ways.

Born boasts a strong turn by Girls' comically maligned Christopher Abbott, here convincingly brutish without entirely sacrificing his appeal or occasional sweetness. But the pulsing motor of the play is the burgeoning love between its female characters -- a complex, alternately doomed and exceedingly hot dance.

Complicating matters are Abbott's relationships with each woman, the cousin with whom he has always had an intense bond -- one that reveals itself to be more twisted than it first appears -- and the adored girlfriend he cheats on because he can. Betty Gilpin, an idiosyncratic presence who makes a believable odd-woman-out among the friends who still inhabit the world she has left behind, has an affecting connection with Abbott and a scorching chemistry with her female costar, Mackenzie Meehan.

With the luxury of total immersion in a playwright's psyche come inevitable echoes, of course. Audiences will note certain trends: entr'acte music that perfectly captures the period in which each piece is set; characters drinking, toking and singing along with rock songs more than strictly necessary; a violent, drunken relative looming, either from dark recesses of the past or imminently; the indelible tenacity of an abuse-ridden childhood. Brutal violence will break out almost casually and then be seemingly forgotten. Boys with hair-trigger tempers will have no memory of their crimes; girls will be unable to put their own needs into words, waiting for something to happen to take them out of themselves. Men will demand to be served; women will serve them. Steak will be cooked and eaten. A man will ask for a kiss; a woman for reassurance that everything will be all right.

Nothing will be further from the truth.

Possibly the most traumatizing work I've ever seen on a stage, the masterfully staged, grimly suspenseful Killers and Other Family is a searing portrait of a young woman who thinks she has found a love to obliterate the horrors of her past, only to have them rear up unexpectedly and implode the haven she has fought to create. The actors give vivid, compelling, almost heroic performances, particularly Samantha Soule as Lizzie, a woman forced to traverse a maze of conflicting emotions and motivations. It can't be easy to live inside these characters daily: women physically and psychologically brutalized, men forced to channel depraved, self-deluded characters who torture both women and each other. Indeed, at the curtain call, the actors seem nearly as stunned as the audience.

Ultimately less devoted than malevolent, Killers' protector brings the knifepoint of danger to his sister's door in service to a relationship he apparently values more than blood. Like his counterparts in the series, this "loving" brother upends the life of someone whose love he may well not deserve. Here, as elsewhere, the nature of his character and his true feelings for his sister cry out for clarification. As the story chillingly unfolds we see little charm or charisma that would explain her loyalty or affection; when he confesses that being face-to-face with slaughter has woken him up -- bought him to life-- we have to wonder how he lives in his skin, this man who continues to punish his little sister for her vulnerability even as he rails against her toughness.

Thurber has a gift for conveying the particular haunted reality of surviving sustained abuse, the yearning to escape versus the dark pull of memories and physical reactions forged in adolescence, the formative power of hyper-intense interactions and sexual branding of sustained negative attention. How many adult survivors find themselves battling the lure of familiar pain, the only expression of love known to them as children?

Killers acutely captures the desperation of a self-immolating survivor who can only stop the cycle of torture when someone she loves -- someone other than herself -- is threatened. Even that transformation requires a long slow burn before erupting -- stalled by the lies she has told her lover, the true self she has hidden from her, the shame about her past and her seeming complicity in it. We witness that complicity, shocked at its ugliness, the pure animal act of someone who has adapted to survive, a kicked dog who doesn't realize it can run away.

The heroine of Killers has run away, but she can't flee the truth about the new life she so cherishes, built on repression, denial and deception. (Her lover's implausible response to its lethal impact is as unfathomable to her as it is to the audience.) Lizzie can't evade the imprint her past has left on her. Stripped of self-preservation from an early age, she has learned to save herself by facilitating abuse, because waiting for the hammer to drop is more excruciating than inciting the hammer, and perhaps the punishment will be lessened if she doesn't resist. For those of us lucky enough not to understand the path of such trauma firsthand, Killers presents a master class in suspending judgment.

In Stay, the fifth play in the series, Rachel and Billy return, all grown up and professionally successful (until they aren't), beyond the traumas of the past (until they aren't), enjoying new romantic possibilities (until they aren't). The brother so shut down in the first play and destructive in the fourth is still unfocused in the fifth, stubbornly resisting our understanding. McCaleb Burnett's Billy is not quite believable as either a lawyer, a man of squandered brilliance, or someone still battling the push and pull of violence rather than completely surrendering to it.

Stay's siblings are each handicapped by the dilemma in which the playwright has placed them; it's difficult to dramatize characters who are fundamentally suppressed. Stay provides Burnett a scene with a male college student that has an ease evident nowhere else in the play or his performance; Hani Furstenberg's Rachel is granted the dramatically inventive and satisfying outlet of a surreal alter ego -- whose impact could be further enhanced by having actress Jenny Seastone Stern comment in ways other than the purely talismanic, perhaps contradicting Rachel's explicit responses or voiced opinions to reveal the layers Rachel hasn't allowed herself to express. Billy's role seems to be chiefly that of scold; by contrast, Rachel is granted a moving if slightly pat sexual communion that somehow avoids the typical discomfort and clinical tinge of most staged love scenes.

Unlike its reality-soaked predecessors, Stay takes a phantasmic approach in attempting to create a new vocabulary for its characters. If the playwright has not yet figured out a satisfying resolution to Stay's various promising setups, her effort to forge a new path is encouraging. One hopes she continues to work toward resolving the issues it raises, in art and life.

Ambitious, frustrating, compelling -- this mini-festival rewards those viewers willing to brave its challenges. It is surely an experiment worth repeating.