Call him the Iago of Long Island. Marc Palmieri's disquieting new play, Levittown, features one of the most compelling modern villains to grace the New York stage this year. But don't look for a black hat; this guy is smartly dressed in a business suit and tie. Richard Briggs (masterfully played by Curzon Dobell) builds up his ego by asserting his will over his two adult children and tearing them down when they bridle at his control. Now living alone, Richard abandoned his wife and two young kids for another woman, although in his narcissism he has convinced himself that it was his kids who abandoned him.
Dobell's uptight demeanor makes it hard to read his character, leaving his kids—and us—in a state of arrested anxiety. Like a snake in the grass, Richard releases his coiled-up anger in sudden spasms.
Nimbly directed by George Demas, Levittown is a well-crafted domestic drama about family secrets and how the sins of the past are borne by later generations of a middle-class family. The play intends to subvert the myth of domestic happiness incarnated in the cookie-cutter houses built in Long Island's Levittown for G.I.'s returning from World War II.
The play's first scenes are schematic as Palmieri dutifully lays out his themes and introduces the characters. Home after dropping out of yet another college, Richard's older son, Kevin (Brian Barnhart), is poised to unearth his grandfather's old wartime secret—the root of all the hurt and betrayal that follows—among the boxes in the room where he will be sleeping. "What do I need school and degrees for?" Kevin asks in a typically blunt line. "What I really should learn about is right here in this house. Up there in those boxes!"
Kevin has sought to maintain a relationship with his father, while his younger sister, Colleen (Margo Passalaqua), has been estranged from him for five years. In the play's most riveting scene, Colleen decides at her brother's urging to visit her father so he can meet her new fiancé.
The grandfather's living room, designed by Kate Aronsson-Brown, is redolent of 1970's suburbia, with its faux-wood furnishings, overstuffed couch and armchair, and family photos on the walls. She uses essentially the same set for the dad's house, save for flipping the wall at back—a bit of stagecraft that involves more than a little awkward shoving to pull off.
The cast is mostly outstanding. In addition to Dobell's commanding performance as the father, Barnhart stands out in his finely grained portrayal of the self-effacing, quietly troubled brother. Michael Laurence, in a smaller role as the straight-talking firefighter cousin Joey, ignites every scene he is in with his incandescent energy; his wisecracks provide some refreshing levity. Cecelia Riddett does her best in the shallow role of the ditzy mother who spouts new-age beliefs.
Passalaqua delivers a convincing performance in her pivotal scene with her father, but elsewhere she doesn't comfortably inhabit the skin of this battered, psychologically frail young woman. Demas has elicited a sympathetic performance from Joe Viviani as the grandfather, making it hard to believe that he was traumatized by his wartime past and became a withdrawn and withholding father.
Palmieri has tried in his play to create two parallel stories of troubled fathers and children. Yet the intricate tale of how the grandfather comes to terms with his past is ultimately eclipsed by the awful magnetism of the conflict between Richard and his children. It may not have been what the playwright intended, but we have little reason to complain, because in that showdown, Levittown harnesses a level of dramatic energy that makes for a truly exhilarating theatrical experience.