This Day Forward continues playwright Nicky Silver’s meditation on parent-child relationships that he made a success of with The Lyons. His caustic new play focuses on the damage that parents can inflict on children—it’s a broad canvas of emotional (and sometimes physical) abuse, distilled into two acts set a generation apart.
On his wedding night in 1958, real estate heir Martin (Michael Crane) is eager to consummate his marriage to his bride, Irene (Holley Fain). But Irene has something important to say first: She doesn’t love him, and she’s about to run off with her paramour, a gas station attendant named Emil (Joe Tippett). “It’s our wedding day,” says Martin, nonplussed, and Irene responds, “I realize my timing is not the best.”
Emil, meanwhile, promptly shows up at the luxury hotel suite (the gilt-trimmed, overdone set is by Allen Moyer) to spirit her away, but he and Martin wrangle and leave to fight. Irene is consoled by a scheming Polish maid, Melka (June Gable), who recounts her own misery. Her son, Donald (Andrew Burnap), the bellhop, is a thief, and when Melka learns that Irene has the chance to marry Martin and live in Westchester, she seizes the opportunity to leave Donald behind. “It’s time you got off my tit,” she tells him, exposing her son’s theft to win Irene’s trust. But their story parallels the main one: Melka spoiled Donald’s relationship with a young married woman she disapproved of.
Act II takes places in a well-appointed New York apartment in 2004, when Noah (Crane) and his sister, Sheila (Francesca Faridany), meet to discuss what to do about their mother, Irene (now played by Gable), who has taken to wandering off. Noah has been uninvolved in her care, but Sheila can’t stand living with her mother anymore, who has attacked George, Sheila’s long-suffering husband.
Noah, a theater director who doesn’t like “displays of emotion,” is also at a crisis point. He has a chance to move to Los Angeles and work in television, but he has been living with Leo (Burnap), an actor, and he isn’t sure that he wants Leo to go with him.
Silver is canny about the repercussions of Martin and Irene’s unhappy marriage on their children, but he also makes clear that their own misery was inflicted on them by their parents. “The thing is, my mother hated Emil,” Irene tells Martin. After they met him at dinner, “they forbid me to see him,” she says.
Martin also admits that his parents “weren’t madly in love when they got married. You can see it in every photograph. The venom leaps off the page.” There are hints, too, that both Irene and Martin have storybook notions of romance. She likes the film Roman Holiday and “You Belong to Me,” which Emil sings to her: “See the Pyramids along the Nile,/Watch the sun rise on a tropic isle,/ Just remember, darling, all the while/You belong to me.” The ruin of their natural inclination toward true love becomes a poisonous legacy.
Silver is equally honest about Emil, who recounts growing up in the home of a cruel uncle, and shows a quick temper to Irene—it’s unlikely she’d have been happier with him. Before the abused Emil could carry out a planned killing of his uncle, the older man is struck dead by a car. Emil attributes it to God’s will. It seems all the characters’ chances at happiness are twisted by parents, society and religion. It’s possible that there is no happy outcome for Irene, no matter whom she chooses.
Under the direction of Mark Brokaw, the actors in the play are terrific, from Gable’s Polish harpy to Burnap’s irritable Donald and his sweet, sympathetic Leo. “I try to see inside,” the upbeat Leo tells the prickly Noah. “There’s nothing to see,” is Noah’s response, and he may be right. Yet the characters sometimes veer toward caricature. Crane is similarly nebbishy as Martin and Noah. As young Irene, Fain has a character whose behavior stretches credibility, even in the service of comedy. And the veteran Gable is cranky as Melka and more so as the fractious, aged Irene.
If the whole feels a bit too programmed for quirkiness, there are plenty of jokes to leaven this dark survey of curdled love and romantic disappointment. “We get lots of wedding nights,” says the bellhop Donald. “I have to say this is the first one that’s ended in fisticuffs.” It's just the beginning of a long cycle of unhappiness.
Nicky Silver’s This Day Forward plays at the Vineyard Theatre (108 E. 15th St.) through Dec. 18. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m. on Saturday. Matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information, call the box office at (212) 353-0303 or visit vineyardtheatre.org.