Despite a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and several acclaimed works in the mid-20th century, playwright William Inge has always fallen into that red-headed-stepchild funk category while contemporaries like Tennessee Williams stole the thunder (we'll get back to him shortly). Natural Affection, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is one of the key examples of that funk, which may be why it's been performed less than a half-dozen times worldwide in those five decades. NYC's Actors Company Theatre, famous for digging up playwright gold, has bravely taken on Inge's moody, sensuous, and eventually shocking city melodrama far removed from his typically bucolic tales of rural longing to mixed results.
Right off the bat, Inge's play seems to owe a debt to Tennessee Williams: His central couple, Sue (Law & Order: Criminal Intent’s Kathryn Erbe), a self-sufficient working gal, and Bernie (Alec Beard), her oft-unemployed muscly lug of a lover, might as well be the Kowalskis with some gender power shifts and hard liquor instead of beer. Sue’s disturbed juvie son, Donnie (Chris Bert), the apple of her eye despite being tucked away in a reform school, is coming back to her with a whole new set of issues (and one strong Oedipal complex). And then there are the libidinous next-door neighbors, Vince (Episodes' John Pankow), a hard-partyin’, sexually ambiguous fiftysomething, and his bored trophy wife, Claire (Victoria Mack), who only has eyes for the strapping Bernie.
No doubt this was heady material for the early 1960s, particularly with the play's homoerotic undertones. It’s almost as if Inge was trying to explicitly one-up Williams’ steamy hothouse dramas. (Interestingly, a few of his characters openly deride Sweet Bird of Youth which is best interpreted as a cheerful jab between pals, as Inge and Williams were famously close.) TACT’s production, however, is serviceable without ever pushing the envelope far enough, at least not until the play’s eyebrow-raising finale, and the casting of the principal actors is less than ideal. Erbe gives a sturdy leading performance, but she falters when trying to elevate of Sue’s inner life (her damaging admission to her son near the end falls much flatter than it should). Beard has the suitable physicality to play the brawny Bernie, but both he and Bert are a little vanilla for Inge's fiercely alpha-male creations. But Pankow, a startlingly under-appreciated character actor, hits both the sweet and sour notes in a fully realized portrayal of a broken-down drunk a performance that packs a big punch even though he has half the stage time of his costars.
Director Jenn Thompson’s well-staged revival successfully conveys Inge’s gritty poetry (''the world looks awful ugly at times''), not to mention his humor (Pankow’s hilarious revision of the word ''hors d’ouevres''). All that's missing is the work’s punctured soul. B-