On the evidence of his new play, Three Changes, author Nicky Silver has been reading Joe Orton, specifically Entertaining Mr. Sloane. Fans of Silver’s loopy humor in works like The Food Chain and Raised in Captivity may be surprised by the dearth of laughter, let alone smiles, in this story of an Upper West Side couple, Laurel and Nate, whose life is taken over by Nate’s long-lost brother. Instead, Silver seems to have followed an impulse to create comedy of a more savage kind. The brother, Hal, played with calculated charm by Scott Cohen, has sought out Nate after years of no contact with his family. “By the time he was twenty we’d all lost track,” says Dylan McDermott’s resentful Nate of Hal’s escape from suburban boredom. Laurel (Maura Tierney), meanwhile, is estranged from her sister. However, she wants to foster a reunion between Nate and Hal, who reemerged on their radar as a Hollywood TV writer, creator of a show with a brilliant angle (one of the better jokes): “a single mother, six kids. And a bounty hunter by night.” Hal’s career is now at a downturn; he made a lot of money, but it all went to drugs and gay sex with hustlers. But he has been saved by Jesus and has religion—or so he says.
Not long after Hal has taken up residence, he weasels his 19-year-old, sociopathic boyfriend Gordon (played with louche nastiness by Brian J. Smith) into the family’s apartment as well. Splayed across a chair, one leg flung over an arm, conscious of his sexual attraction, Gordon cadges Hal for attention and money. If one has ever seen Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Smith's body language makes a potent visual connection. There’s no need to learn that Gordon has murdered an old woman to connect the dots.
But there are other Ortonesque touches, such as the cynicism about religion (though it is clumsy and underdeveloped), which is used by the unscrupulous Hal to foist himself on the desperately needy Nate and Laurel. And just as Ed, the brother of Kath in Sloane, turns out to be bisexual, so does Hal here—one of the title “changes”—as he begins an affair with Tierney’s weary, emotionally susceptible Laurel. Nate, meanwhile, is having his own affair with Steffi, a young woman who works at the cosmetics counter at Bloomingdale’s and wants much, much more than a casual sexual relationship.
Although Wilson Milam gets fine performances from his cast, and Neil Patel has provided an immaculate prewar apartment (the walls are scrims that gradually reveal interior rooms), their efforts are wasted on a play that just doesn’t work. Believability is stretched to the utmost after Nate is brutalized by Hal and does nothing—except drink and wilt. He doesn’t have the locks changed; he doesn’t instruct his doorman to prevent Hal and Gordon’s return. He doesn't do anything a reasonable person would, let alone a New Yorker.
Three Changes lacks Orton’s rigorous grasp of classical structure or twisted logic (or any logic at all), and Silver undermines the dramatic scenes by breaking the fourth wall repeatedly to have characters stand on the apron of the stage and deliver monologues, which suck the momentum out of the play. At one point, four of his five actors stand and speak to the audience, then to one another. So these inner thoughts are overheard by the other characters? Or is it just lazy narration? At another moment, Steffi (Aya Cash) speaks about a scene that has just taken place between Hal and Laurel and wonders whether they will have sex—but it’s a scene her character could not possibly know about.
The metamorphoses suggested by the title include Hal and Nate’s switching roles. Suddenly Nate begins to wear glasses and Hal finds he doesn’t need his. The end features a new family unit, as does Sloane, but the tone is vastly different. Instead of the interloper receiving a comeuppance, Hal achieves the family he wants, at a gruesome cost. By the time he does, you will have long given up the expectation of any pleasure, let alone a point, from this unsatisfying stew.