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Roots of Abuse, Crime Shown in Play

Mark Evans

NEW YORK (AP) - Her father's dead, her mother's a prostitute and home is a dingy room that doubles as Mom's workplace.

So it doesn't take much for Lisa, the teen-age protagonist in The Glory of Living, an unflinchingly dark off-Broadway drama, to be lured away by Clint, a rough but somewhat charming older man who offers her a few compliments.

And it doesn't take long to realize she should have stayed put.

Playwright Rebecca Gilman, who based her play on a crime in Alabama, delves into the roots of an unspeakably warped relationship and the self-delusion that keeps it fueled.

It's a powerful and unnerving story, made more devastating by the tiny confines of the MCC Theater and the taut direction of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Hoffman is best known for quirky acting roles in movies that include Magnolia and The Talented Mr. Ripley, and the Broadway hit True West. As a director, he displays his keen appreciation of the art. Here, working with a young cast, he creates an extremely skewed but believable world, remarkably holding together the palpable tension at the play's core.

It's a difficult line to walk. So wrenching are the themes here - physical and emotional abuse, child molestation and murder - that a less adept director might well have lost the nuances in the two main characters that make the story worth telling.

Hoffman is helped along by superb acting, highlighted by the stage debut of Anna Paquin.

Paquin, who became a child celebrity in 1993 for her Oscar-winning performance in The Piano shows remarkable maturity in a challenging role. She maintains a youthful, withdrawn innocence even while showing an increasingly rough side - and the tugs of conscience - as the effects of an abusive relationship wear her down.

Jeffrey Donovan, as Clint, balances a fine line as her lover - she is 15 when they meet - and eventual husband. A deluded drifter with colossal emotional problems, Clint displays flashes of hair-trigger anger and depravity mixed with playful charm and moments of love for his wife. Donovan expertly and believably evokes this twisted psyche.

Watching the pair carry on matter-of-factly as a couple of happy lovers - amid bouts of physical abuse and lurid sexual crimes - is both convincing and disturbing.

Also showing remarkable maturity is Brittany Slattery, a high school sophomore, who plays one of the couple's victims. Erika Rolfsrud is convincing as Lisa's hardened mother, Jeanette, as is David Aaron Baker, who plays a defense lawyer frustrated at Lisa's lack of self-worth.

The play loses some of its focus only during the second act, when Lisa finds herself explaining the couple's crimes to the police and lawyers. The interrogations drag on a bit, if only because it is clear the legal chatter will never get at the real, ambiguous motives at play.

Another Gilman play, Boy Gets Girl, played off-Broadway earlier this year. An uneven work about a man who ruthlessly stalks a woman, that play suffered for its tendency to sermonize. In The Glory of Living, Gilman chooses instead to show us the complexities at the root of twisted human relationships. The effect is far more honest and powerful.

Associated Press, November 15, 2001