Family ties are strained to the breaking point in first-time playwright Tommy Nohilly’s Blood From a Stone, now playing as part of the New Group’s season. There’s plenty of shouting and squabbling, particularly between ineffectual patriarch Bill (Gordon Clapp) and his wife Margaret, a nurse who’s constantly on his case. The two of them share a loveless marriage in a similarly ramshackle home (expertly designed by Derek McLane), where drop ceiling panels descend at regular intervals, letting forth bursts of water.
When their son Travis (Ethan Hawke) arrives on the scene, the family’s latest dilemmas and joys emerge. Travis’s brother Matt is on the brink of divorce and in serious money trouble, his sister Sarah is pregnant, and his old flame Yvette, who lives next-door to his parents, is less than happy in her current marriage.
Nohilly’s writing is rough-and-tumble, full of natural-sounding dialogue that trips off the actors’ tongues with ease. The play’s strongest asset is its ability to pull an audience in by presenting characters we can all recognize – the father struggling to make ends meet while obsessing over his favorite lunch foods, the bad-mouthing mother, and the trifling brother. Also skillful is Nohilly’s ability to seed into the plot hints that resurface and gain meaning as the play proceeds.
Ultimately, the play is about filial responsibility. As we grow older, what do we owe to our parents and, alternately, what do they owe us? This is the question the play poses as sons rob from their parents and parents hand their sons wads of cash in return. When does our responsibility to ourselves kick in? And how can we make our way in the world relying on those who have brought us up without any regard for their contributions?
Ethan Hawke as Travis leads an altogether fantastic cast that explores these questions probingly and with a sensitive ear for Nohilly’s language. Though Natasha Lyonne and Daphne Rubin-Vega (as Travis’s sister and ex respectively) are underused, both turn in insightful performances that shed light on Travis’s character.
Where Blood From a Stone stumbles is its excessive length. Though the action heats up in the play’s second half as Travis’s brother Matt finds himself in some serious hot water, what precedes this boiling-over is seriously stretched-out and occasionally lacking momentum. Though the evening is ultimately thoughtful and incisive, its parts are somewhat meatier than its whole and its ending less than satisfying. It’s certainly difficult to pull blood from a stone; though Nohilly may have successfully demonstrated that blood is thicker than water, his aims at geological extraction fall somewhat short of the mark.