The single mother of an autistic 13-year-old boy collapses from a deadly brain aneurysm in front of her son and her startled sisters and their husbands. Who is to care for the orphaned boy? That is the agonizing question that drives Darci Picoult's intense and carefully wrought drama, Jayson With a Y, a production of the New Group's low-budget "naked" division at the Lion Theater on Theater Row.
The play, directed by Sheryl Kaller, sharpens the dilemma to a fine point. The mother's death comes without warning. One sister, Kyle (Marin Hinkle), is eight months pregnant with her first child. The other, Lynette (Maryann Plunkett), and her husband have plans to leave shortly for a year in Paris. Both women are justifiably reluctant to make the dramatic life changes that taking in their nephew would entail.
The action takes place mostly in Lynette's Manhattan loft apartment during the first days after the death when grief distorts judgment and sets nerves on edge. The strain of deciding what to do with Jason produces a hairline fracture that threatens to shatter the bond between the sisters and the very foundation of both marriages.
Making the drama so convincing is Picoult's precise rendering of the minor details of domestic life—the small tensions, anxieties, and conflicts that suffuse daily living. She also has a knack for mimicking the ellipses and half-sentences of conversation among siblings and longtime couples even as she sets out the leitmotifs that will give the play deeper resonance and a sense of unity.
Among the able cast, Plunkett, who won a Tony for best actress in 1987 for her role in the musical Me and My Girl, is a standout. She brings a fierce emotional energy to her role as the wavering Lynette.
Miles Purinton, a sophomore at Stuyvesant High School, delivers a high-voltage, spot-on performance as the volatile and solitary Jayson, a bright kid who is unable to engage in normal social interactions and erupts in rage when his daily routine is disturbed. Purinton's performance, helped along by Picoult's fine drawing of the character, captures the antipathy and sympathy that Jayson elicits in equal measure.
Picoult is best with female characters. Both husbands are one-dimensional and not very likable. Lynette's husband (Daniel Oreskes) refuses to engage Jayson beyond macho bantering, while Kyle's punctilious husband (Marin Hinkle) tries to argue her out of any sense of duty to the boy. Alysia Reiner is exquisite in the small but key role of Jayson's mother, but it's jarring to see her reappear, with little change in appearance, later in the play as the presiding minister at the mother's funeral and as the director of a residence for children with special needs.
Working with a small black-box stage, set designer Adrian W. Jones conceived a two-room setup that niftily accommodates the play's numerous locations.
Kaller follows Picoult's instructions to overlap the end of each scene with the beginning of the next. Russell H. Champa and Justin Partier's lighting and Shane Rettig's sound smooth the transitions. The strategy creates some weird juxtapositions, but it keeps the dramatic momentum at full tilt despite the multiple scene changes.
The play, 90 minutes without an intermission, builds to a satisfying and not implausible conclusion. It is worth the journey.