BLOOD FROM A STONE Ann Dowd as Margaret and Ethan Hawke as Travis
Credit: Monique Carboni

Blood from a Stone

There’s something thrilling about seeing something as completely fresh and unexpected as Blood From a Stone, a debut play of great promise by a former Marine and sometime actor named Tommy Nohilly now being performed in a solid New Group production at Off Broadway’s Acorn Theater. The semiautobiographical play depicts a volatile, violence-prone working-class family in New Britain, Conn., that’s as shaky as the set: the interior of a family home that’s clearly seen better days (and that takes quite a beating during the course of the evening). There’s a missing kitchen cabinet (and unfaded wallpaper to underscore its absence), water-stained ceiling tiles, and furniture that any half-decent thrift store would reject.

Margaret (Ann Dowd), a nurse working mostly on the night shift, and her hothead of a husband, Bill (NYPD Blue‘s Gordon Clapp, full of bluster), have been unhappily married for years, and they tear into each other as only an old married couple can. Their grown son Travis (Ethan Hawke) has come home for a brief, pre-Christmas visit from New York, where he’s quietly left his job and secretly planned a cross-country trip to start over again in California. But Travis soon discovers that all is decidedly not well on the home front: not for his parents; not for his married sister, Sarah (Natasha Lyonne), a nurse like her mother; and certainly not for his ne’er-do-well younger brother, Matt (Thomas Guiry), who’s gotten in way over his head by building up gambling debts and cheating on his wife with a married woman.

Nohilly’s dialogue captures the real verbal rhythms of conversations among family, the ways that relatives can share facts about their lives while leaving out critical details, or exploit any signs of weakness in each other in the interest of one-upmanship or jealousy or long-nursed resentments. He dishes up a healthy serving of plot, too, with the exposition cleverly parceled out over the course of the show’s five scenes instead of during one heaping plateful at the beginning.

But there’s also a slightly overstuffed quality to Blood From a Stone, which would benefit from some judicious pruning to its most basic elements. It’s as if Nohilly has not had time to process his still-raw family experiences and reshape them into a fully coherent new narrative. Despite a very good and believable performance by Hawke, Travis remains a bit of a passive cipher for much of the show, and so his final, fateful decisions don’t carry quite the weight that they might otherwise. Director Scott Elliott’s pacing can be an issue, too, and a fleeter production might mask some of its more jagged aspects.

But it seems only fitting that this show is a little rough around the edges, because its characters live far from the polished perfection of the A.R. Gurneys or Jon Robin Baitzes of the stage world. This is more Sam Shepard country. And because of that working-stiff authenticity, Nohilly manages to pack a considerable punch in Blood From a Stone. With a little more training, this first-time playwright could be a real heavyweight contender. B

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Blood from a Stone
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