Off-Broadway Theater Review: THE CLEARING (Theatre at St. Clement’s)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on January 19, 2014

in Theater-New York

BROTHERS’ BOND

Josh Hecht does an outstanding job directing Jake Jeppson’s effective new play The Clearing, about two brothers who suffer from a dark secret they’ve shared for the past 17 years. Chris Ellis is an emotional man-child in his late twenties; he is burly, excitable, prone to acting out, and unable to deal with the horrors that haunt him. His gentle, reticent, and younger brother Les is moving on with a life which now includes a loving boyfriend named Peter. One gets the sense that Les would be content with leaving the past in the past if it wasn’t for his needy brother continually pulling him back.

Brian P. Murphy (Chris Ellis) on top and Brian McManamon (Les Ellis) on bottom play brothers in The Clearing.

Mr. Jeppson creates naturalistic dialogue which flows from the mouths of believable, sympathetic characters built with affection and care. The play’s structure, with the first act beginning yesterday and unfolding in reverse chronological order, and the second flowing forward in time and ending in yesterday, does a lot to create suspense, tension and mystery. The climax is startling and resonant.

Gene Gallerano (Peter) in The Clearing.

Mr. Hecht takes his time with every element of the staging, honing each one until they all come together with what feels like a satisfying click. He elicits precise performances that feel truthful and effortless from the all-around excellent cast—Brian McManamon as Les, Brian P. Murphy as Chris, Gene Gallerano as Peter, and Allison Daugherty as the siblings’ mother. Daniel Zimmerman’s melancholy set is lit evocatively by Gertjan Houben, and Sam Kusnetz’s extraordinary sound design supplies additional depth and dimension. All these elements in Mr. Hecht’s capable hands come together to create a living, breathing theatrical work that is satisfying, for the most part.

Brian P. Murphy (Chris Ellis) and Allison Daugherty (Ella Ellis, mother of Chris Ellis) in The Clearing.

Mr. Jeppson’s script has a few shortcomings. In the beginning, as a sort of prologue, Peter comes out and asks us to imagine how it would have been to be Abraham living in the Fertile Crescent and to suddenly hear the voice of God speaking to us. It would have filled Abraham with purpose, suggests Peter, and changed him from being just some farmer guy to being Abraham, someone who meant something, who mattered, who couldn’t be thrown away or forgotten. This theme of God’s voice is brought up on several occasions but it never quite fits with the action of the play; something is not quite worked out. This is most evident in Peter’s final scene when he speaks of God’s silence.

Gene Gallerano (Peter) on top and Brian McManamon (Les Ellis) on bottom play lovers in The Clearing.

Structurally speaking, the secret that the brothers are keeping is left unanswered a little too long. A mystery is always more satisfying than its revelation, and the trick to making a truly profound work is to give us the answer somewhere in the middle and then spend the rest of the time dramatically expanding its significance.

Gene Gallerano (Peter), Brian McManamon (Les Ellis) and Brian P. Murphy (Chris Ellis) in The Clearing.

Above all, Mr. Jeppson intentionally creates ambiguity, as if keeping exposition at bay raises thought-provoking questions. Unfortunately, this diminishes the impact of the powerful and shocking story he has created.  In addition, the very last scene, although probably less than a minute long, saps the emotional impact of the climax and makes little sense thematically or dramatically.

Brian McManamon (Les Ellis) and Allison Daugherty (Ella Ellis, mother of Les Ellis) in The Clearing.

These issues are unlikely to have simple fixes and would require a rewrite. But the effort would be worth the trouble; these flaws are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, but they preclude Mr. Jeppson’s admirable play from being all that it could be.

Brian P. Murphy (Chris Ellis) in The Clearing.photos by Hunter Canning

The Clearing
presented by The Clearing LLC,
22Q Entertainment and Jennifer Kranz
developed in part by AXIAL Theatre
Theatre at St. Clement’s
423 West 46th Street between 9th and 10th
scheduled to end on February 9, 2014
for tickets, call 866-811-4111
or visit www.TheClearingPlayNYC.com

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