Bruise Easy

                    American Theater Company

                                     by Dan Zeff

ChicagoThe opening night of “Bruise Easy” at the American Theater Company was postponed three days from January 11 to January 14 so playwright Dan LeFranc could revise the script. The playwright would be better advised to abandon the entire project. No amount of workshop tweaking can save this shambles of a play.

The play consists two characters, a burnt out young man named Alec (Matt Farabee) and his equally fraught though classier younger sister, Tess (Kelly O’Sullivan). Nearly all of the play is set on the driveway of the family home in an unnamed suburb. The siblings do not get along, though there is an undercurrent of incest between the two. In one scene Alec, at Tess’s request, gives his sister a series of hickeys, one of which lasted what seemed like 20 minutes and provided one of the creepier moments in my recent playgoing experience.

There is no firm narrative in the play and the most dramatic character never appears. That’s the mother, who Tess keeps waiting to make an appearance, like a bizarre female Godot. The woman sounds like a real emotional loony tune, possibly sexually abusing Alec when he was a boy. Tess’s love-hate relationship with the absent woman is over the top, but we never get to hear the mother’s side of the dysfunctional family, which I suspect would have made for lively listening.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

We don’t learn much about Alec’s personal life, but we know that Tess is reeling from a severed romantic relationship. She is visiting the family home from Colorado (the play’s locale is along a beach in California). She desperately seeks her mother, though what succor that weirdo woman would have offered is problematical. Tess lets it drop that she is in the early stages of pregnancy, though she is unsure of the father. Late in the play she orders her brother to hit her repeatedly in the stomach, obviously to abort the pregnancy. Alec complies on stage, a bit of exceedingly disagreeable action for the audience to absorb.
The play runs for about 75 minutes without an intermission, and it seemed like the characters about half of that time in silence. These aren’t Pinterian silences that build suspense and atmosphere. They are just empty space when the two characters stop talking to each other. Neither character is very articulate, especially Alec, who does get a few laughs with his murmuring reactions to his sister’s dialogue.

The energy level of the play is low except for an occasional outburst, like when Tess raises the garage door and in a fury of resentment against her absent mother starts smashing video cassettes that contain family moments from earlier, possibly happier, times. The frantic scene comes out of nowhere but it does allow O’Sullivan to run wild impressive ferocity.
The playwright attempts to flesh out his script by adding a chorus of six neighborhood young people, all cast from the ATC Youth Ensemble. The youngsters wear playground clothes and plastic masks and speak in unison. The chorus is a gimmick that adds nothing to the play, except for contributing useless bits of information. The chorus states that the play is set in 2005, though there is no sense of a time period in the show. The chorus later adds that time in the play has passed, though they aren’t certain whether it’s years, months, or just days. Thanks for nothing!

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

“Bruise Easy” does give the teenagers an opportunity to appear on stage, and they speak in clearly understandable unison. The kids are all game and deserve to be identified by name--Matt Gomez Hidaka, Dante Guinazzo, Leah Schiffman, Sandy Nguyen, Michael Sandoval, and Jenna Makkawy. We can only hope that their future live appearances will avoid the tedium of their current vehicle.

The chorus does wrap up the show at the final blackout, one young lady stepping forward to state in a few lines how Alec and Tess proceed with their lives after they permanently leave the house. The monologue seems to suggest that the house delivers evil vibes that destroy relationships among the men and women who live in it. The house as a bad seed comes out of nowhere, but it does suggest a kind of closure, and at least it brings the play to an end. The play’s plot (to employ a courtly synonym) is so ambiguous it can’t even be called pretentious.

The playbill lists a circus consultant, a bike consultant, a skate consultant, and a fight choreographer among the designer credits. I can see the role of Dave Gonzalez as fight choreographer. There is a convincing violent physical battle between Tess and Alec. But a kid from the chorus pedaled a bicycle across the stage for only a few seconds, and I didn’t see anyone skating and there were no circus elements I could discern. Lee Keenan did design some colorful geometric projections that could be interpreted as circus, but that’s a stretch.

Joanie Schultz directs the play but no director could save this example of intractable dramatic ineffectiveness. You have to admire Kelly O’Sullivan and Matt Farabee for their commitment to their characters. They played the extensive pauses as well as they could and managed to occasionally kindle some audience-involving emotion and a bit of humor. But the narrative breaks down into loose ends and just plain pointlessness. LeFranc is the author of “The Big Meal,” a deserved hit for the ATC. But “Bruise Easy” just doesn’t work and one leaves the theater wondering why the play was even written (or what the title is supposed to signify).

“Bruise Easy” runs through February 14 at the American Theater Company, 1909 West Byron Street. Performances are Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $38 and $48. For reservations, call 773 409 4125 or visit

                  The show gets a rating of 1½ stars.

          Contact: January 2016

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