The biggest difference between Carson McCullers’ 1940 Southern gothic novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Rebecca Gilman’s stage adaptation, now playing at Off Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop? The deaf mute speaks. But before you get your britches in a bunch, ask yourself: Haven’t you always wanted to know what was going through John Singer’s mind…especially at the end?
Gilman smartly uses Singer, played with genteel charm by Henry Stram, to bookend her narrative; she gives him a voice only at the beginning — when he parts ways with his soon-to-be-institutionalized mute friend Antonapoulos (I.N. Sierros) — and in the final scene, when he shares his thoughts on the four characters who, day after day, trudge up to his rented room seeking his comfort, guidance, and company: drunken would-be revolutionary Jake (Andrew Weems); just-widowed restaurant owner Biff (Randall Newsome); Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland (James McDaniel), a black physician; and 14-year-old Mick Kelly (Cristin Milioti), who dreamily listens to ”Motsart” and plans one day to write a symphony.
In trimming and focusing McCullers’ sprawling story, Gilman keeps all the best characters — Copeland’s daughter Portia (the lovely Roslyn Ruff), who’s also the Kellys’ housekeeper, thankfully, gets her share of the spotlight — but has trouble filling in their backstories. A line like ”I didn’t know Miss Alice was gonna die like that” sounds less like actual conversation than a last-minute revise, as if Gilman suddenly remembered that the audience needs to know about Biff’s widower status.
Director Doug Hughes’ staging cleverly evokes a palpable sense of solitude. By subdividing the massive NYTW stage, set designer Neil Patel has provided each character with his or her own little world, platforms that roll forward or back as needed (and there the actors stay, in the dark, pretty much frozen, when we shift from one locale to another). And the performances are largely top-notch — Stram and McDaniel (a.k.a. NYPD Blue‘s Lieutenant Fancy) are particularly understated and moving. The play just doesn’t tear your Heart up. C+
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200;)