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Stage review

Horovitz and ‘Sins’ cast put accent on menace

Robert Walsh (left) plays Bobby Maloney and David Nail portrays Dubbah Morrison in “Sins of the Mother’’ at Gloucester Stage. Robert Walsh (left) plays Bobby Maloney and David Nail portrays Dubbah Morrison in “Sins of the Mother’’ at Gloucester Stage. (Shawn G. Henry)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / September 2, 2009

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GLOUCESTER - “The past is of very little use,’’ a cocksure, sunglasses-wearing car dealer named Philly Verga proclaims dismissively near the end of “Sins of the Mother.’’

Nice try, Philly. The truth is that for all five characters in this engrossing drama by Israel Horovitz, the past is always present. It traps them, struggle as they might to forget it, in a cycle of guilt and retribution. The past can’t be swept away with a glib one-liner. It is always circling, waiting to move in for the kill.

The prolific Horovitz, now entering his fifth decade as a significant American playwright, sets a bountiful table for actors. There’s a reason his early plays helped launch the likes of Al Pacino, John Cazale, Jill Clayburgh, Richard Dreyfuss, and Scott Glenn. Horovitz reliably offers his actors a feast of elliptical, vaguely menacing dialogue, plots that are booby-trapped with surprises and twisty turnabouts, action that is both physical and psychological, and sometimes, as in “Sins of the Mother,’’ a chance to try out their Boston accents.

Under the direction of the playwright, a vibrant cast makes the most of it in a new production of “Sins’’ at Gloucester Stage Company. (A one-act play when it premiered at Gloucester Stage six years ago, it was expanded by Horovitz into a full-length work).

The emotional center of “Sins’’ is occupied by Bobby Maloney (Robert Walsh), a Vietnam veteran in his mid-50s with a terminally ill wife and bleak job prospects. He’s not alone: The fishing industry has declined, bringing lean times to Gloucester. That leaves Bobby plenty of time to chew the fat with the three other unemployed guys who join him early one morning in the stevedores’ union meeting room of a largely closed fish-processing plant.

There is Frankie Verga, a loose cannon embittered by the success of his identical twin brother, Philly (Christopher Whalen plays both roles); Dubbah Morrison (David Nail), a well-meaning doofus relegated to boasting of his vegetarianism (“I’m 13 1/2-years meat-sober’’ is how he puts it); and Douggie Shimmatarro (Francisco Solorzano), whose life story delivers a jolt to the others, especially when they learn who his mother was.

There will be no spoilers here, but suffice it to say that the foursome’s conversation steadily moves into dangerous territory, exposing long-buried secrets and hidden connections that build to a confrontation. In detailing those connections, “Sins’’ is at times overly schematic and reliant on coincidences. A second-act soliloquy by Dubbah seems tacked on, as if the playwright concluded it was simply the character’s turn to bare his soul.

But Horovitz, now 70, continues to pour such energy into plot construction and such wit into his dialogue that it carries “Sins’’ past such flaws. Gloucester, as it often does for Horovitz, functions in “Sins’’ as more than a setting, more even than a subject: as a virtual sixth character. Eugene Ionesco once described Horovitz as “both a sentimentalist and a realist,’’ and that is especially true in his depiction of Gloucester.

With its rough-edged protagonists and its catalog of social pathologies (including drug use and child abuse), “Sins’’ is not a play to gladden the heart of a Chamber of Commerce official. Yet the playwright takes contagious joy in capturing the rhythms of local speech and the flavor of local folkways. He knows that no cultural anthropologist can rival a native’s walking knowledge of Gloucester’s social history. Consider this wonderful exchange that opens the play:

Bobby: “Your name’s Douggie?’’ Douggie: “Douglas. Yuh, Douggie.’’ Bobby: “You’re not Evvie Shimmatarro’s brother?’’ Douggie: “Evvie Shimmatarro’s brother’s older than me.’’ Bobby: “Evvie Shimmatarro’s brother is Douggie, right?’’ Douggie: “Yuh, but, he’s older.’’ Bobby: “Yuh, but, both’a your names are Douggie Shimmatarro?’’ Douggie: “Yuh, right, but, he’s older than me.’’ Bobby: “But, isn’t there another Douggie Shimmatarro over in Lanesville? Richie Shimmatarro’s middle son?’’ Douggie: “I heard that. Those are different Shimmatarros.’’ Bobby: “So, you’re saying there are three Douggie Shimmatarros livin’ in Gloucester?’’ Douggie: “Three I know about.’’

With his watchful eyes, Solorzano conveys both Douggie’s vulnerability and his tough inner core. Nail brings similar shadings to the character of Dubbah, while Whalen rises expertly to the challenge of playing Frankie and Philly. Walsh, as Bobby, has a marvelously lived-in face that evokes a gentler Lee Marvin or James Coburn. He is compelling to watch, whether that face is contorted with broken-hearted anguish or drawn so tight you can almost hear the time bomb ticking.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

SINS OF THE MOTHER Play by Israel Horovitz

Directed by: Horovitz. Set, Jenna McFarland Lord. Costumes, Ashley Preston. Lights, Russ Swift.

At: Gloucester Stage Company, Gloucester, through Sept. 13. Tickets: $32-$37. 978-281-4433, www.gloucesterstage.org

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