Ghosts and demons are expected to rise up on Halloween, and the ones within the haunted house of Jack Neary’s twisted and brutal tragicomedy, Trick or Treat, do not disappoint. The walking dead linger on the staircase while the spirits of deceased relatives, as well as some long-buried secrets, emerge to effectively tear apart a family. Hints of betrayal, mental illness and physical violence pervade the air, so don’t even ask what happened in the basement. Not that Neary’s characters are wearing white sheets, bloody robes or devil horns. No, this is a far scarier and more tragic clan: a passive-aggressive, Irish-American, middle-class family in eastern Massachusetts.
Set on Halloween, the play’s first act builds to an earthquake of a revelation, while Act II is a series of aftershocks that cause sustained damage. That listing the specifics would mean unmasking all the fun is testament to the integrity of Neary’s nifty script. The past and present actions of each family member are so tightly interwoven that to mention a father’s long-ago instinctual defense of his young son is to divulge why his daughter would grow up to marry the man she did. Suffice it to say that this is a play that pits paternal protection against marital devotion, and measures the stark difference between preserving the family and preserving the family name.
When we first lay eyes on Johnny Moynihan, he is seemingly alone in a large, cluttered house, preparing to receive trick-or-treaters. But, in a sensitive and engrossing performance from Gordon Clapp, something is clearly wrong. A permanent frown mars Johnny’s face, and his bulky, shuffling body seems to slowly be crushing in on itself. When his daughter, Claire (Jenni Putney), comes to call, we get a hint of Johnny’s New England accent—“Park the car,” he tells her—and an inkling of his woes. His wife, Nancy (Kathy Manfre), a victim of early onset Alzheimer’s, has reached the stage of the disease where he can no longer properly look out for her.
As Johnny describes to Claire what he has been through in dealing with Nancy over the course of the day, it might seem that the viewer has been trapped in a very depressing play about a devastating illness. But, as Johnny divulges just how he treated his dear wife in the wake of being freaked out by her behavior, it becomes clear that he is not so kindly, even though he always hands out the full-sized candy bars to the neighborhood kids, and that Neary has more on his mind than just compassionate care.
Soon Johnny’s son, Teddy (David Mason), arrives and hears of his mother’s condition. The family tensions grow palpable as we learn that Teddy is in line to become the police chief of their small town, a position once held by Johnny’s father but which Johnny never achieved. Teddy, however, has a history of violence, and Claire’s husband, an editorialist for the local paper, is out to keep him from getting the promotion. As if the tension between the three were not heated enough, nosy neighbor Hannah (Kathy McCafferty) keeps dropping by to act as a catalyst for a series of blow-ups. That she is an ex-girlfriend of Teddy’s makes matters no less volatile. By the time all the domestic matters have been sorted out, with previously undisclosed allegiances revealed and exit strategies put into place, Johnny is left virtually alone to wallow in the tragic consequences of his decisions. His world view of what it means to honor and to keep, in sickness and in health, is radically altered.
Clapp’s powerhouse execution of a father with all the wrong dreams receives strong support from his co-stars. Though we know a lot about Teddy before he even enters, Mason’s flying off the handle and reaching for serenity make for an explosive mix. Putney, meanwhile, supplies the right blend of compassion and disgust as the beleaguered Claire, and McCafferty makes Hannah a believable interloper, unable to stay away even as things get worse every time she drops in.
Director Carol Dunne brings a masterly pacing to the proceedings, pulling focus toward important clues while navigating the audience through a patchwork of lies. Among the clutter of scenic designer Michael Ganio’s well-worn living room are baskets of toys that may be there for Johnny’s grandkids or for a much sadder reason. Meanwhile, a jack-o’-lantern, bearing a demonic smile, looks on approvingly from atop a bookshelf.
Trick or Treat runs through Feb. 24 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St., between Park and Madison avenues). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. To purchase tickets, call the box office at (646) 892-7999 or visit www.59e59.org.