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The Sunday Critic

Flowers in the Attic Reviewed



Do you know someone suffering an idée fixe? Someone staring, who returns obsessively, in a low drone of helpless servility, to a single topic, usually sexual in nature? If that someone was fixated on adolescent sibling incest, with hefty helpings of related fetishes – idealized dead fathers, libidinous unreliable mothers, children as pretty dolls, Biblical invocations of damnation, and of course sadomasochism – she or he could have written Flowers in the Attic.

 

V.C. Andrews did so, of course, in 1979, and her infamous gothic novel has spread like kudzu across pop culture ever since. There is nothing, nothing on the original’s mind except manipulating the baroque plotline about the hapless Dollanganger children – imprisoned in the attic of the mansion run by their terrifyingly pious grandmother (Mary Pauley) by their flighty, fragile mother (Rebecca Hollingsworth), who hopes to win back her estranged father and secure her family’s inheritance by pretending, “for only a little while!”, that her children don’t exist – until the older two, Christopher (Levi Hood) and Cathy (Kali Russell) are not only justified in making sweet sweet love, it’s become the only right and natural thing to do. Really, the story arc would be easier to pay off had Christopher and Cathy been the last survivors of a nuclear holocaust.

 

Much more than a cult success, Andrews’ novel spawned over twenty related series (forbidden love, usually of the “will the children be normal?” sort, figuring prominently) and four sequels of its own, the last of which was completed after her death by Andrew Niederman, a ghost writer hired by her estate. Niederman still writes new “V.C. Andrews” books to this day, and there are a lot of them. A busy man, yet the amanuensis has produced a stage adaptation of the book that started it all. The opera and the videogame are in development, I’m sure.

 

If you haven’t gathered by now, I arrived at the latest See ‘Em On Stage production prepared to despise it. But director Chris Bentivegna and his cast and crew have sprung a surprise...a shock, really. By surrendering to its repetitive, lurid tone – by playing it straight – they have premiered a Flowers in the Attic that recreates the spell of the original. Sometimes when an obsessive drones on, you can’t help but give in: By the end of Act One, nothing in the world is more important than that these poor kids find release in each other’s arms.

 

It couldn’t have been easy to commit. The dialogue is dreadful – again, true to the source; artistry would only distract – and none of the characters save mother Corinne is assigned more than two personality traits. But a camp approach would be deadly smarmy. Bentivegna draws on the same make-it-real determination he brought to Human Resources, another implausible story, and the only other non-musical I’ve seen from him. Something about working without songs makes him sit up straight.

 

Hood has the chore of playing Perfect Dad, junior division, and delivers his dreamboat Boy Scout persuasively. This is the polar opposite of his fragile, stuttering turn as Billy Bibbitt in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Russell gets to have a tad more fun, alternating between purposely petulant and unconsciously seductive. She stretches the wire-thin line between bratty and womanly without snapping it, and her ballet recital is how-could-you-not-want-her sexy. The two younger Dolls, Edward Boudreaux IV and Daisy Mackey, whose needs and ailments are timed just right so as to prevent their older siblings from making an escape, are startlingly good. These are real performances from believable children, not mere plot-device place holders.

 

When females mature and bear children, however, watch out. Pauley has the least enviable role. Harridan Olivia is a one-woman vessel for all of the repressed, vicious sexual hysteria Andrews could dream up. (Think Carrie’s mom, but even less welcome at parties.) No amount of conviction and chops can make Olivia seem human. It’s one of the two roles that would benefit from camp, but that approach would break the spell. Pauley is one of our greats, though – she freezes her face in a death mask of rage – as is Jen Pagan in the other campy role as the narrating older Cathy, who has to deliver the reams of wistful exposition necessary to make the story play onstage instead of on the page. (Strolling to and fro on memory’s balcony and wearing a long blonde fall, Pagan resembles a stylish refugee from Valley of the Dolls.) These two make it work despite being hampered by, respectively, an inability to make a startling and powerful entrance, and an inability to ever leave our sight. The stage layout doesn’t allow for either.

 

Finally Hollingsworth, one of our about-to-be-greats, takes Corinne, the sole three-dimensional character – still wildly implausible and internally contradictory, sure – and makes a meal of her, bite by delicate bite. Only a few years older at most than the actors playing her children, seemingly too healthy and vigorous to convince as the most broken of these flowers, she almost makes the story mean more than the gussied-up porno it is: how childhood damage can make for damaging adults. If Hollingsworth couldn’t garner the Big Easy Awards committee’s attention for her astonishing performance in An Outopia for Pigeons, I doubt that this play, or this role, will do so. But it should.

 

I’d still wish the prurient pandering of Flowers in the Attic off the face of the earth. Not everything is ennobled by longevity and success. But someone once said that a story needs no other justification, no greater purpose, than that it be irresistibly interesting. “What happens next? What happens next?” This is one fascinating piece of crap.

 

I can’t wrap up without noting Bentivegna’s sound design is flawless, as are Christian Tarzetti and Monica Mazzaro’s costumes, somehow period-specific but modern-day. Also that, between his modestly budgeted but pitch-perfect work for Flowers in the Attic (hodgepodge but lush) and the utterly different Blackbird (grimy but sterile), Matthew Collier is about to be our next constantly-in-demand set designer.

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Contributors

Renard Boissiere, Evan Z.E. Hammond, Naimonu James, Wilson Koewing, J.A. Lloyd, Nina Luckman, Dead Huey Long, Alexis Manrodt, Joseph Santiago, Andrew Smith, Cynthia Via, Austin Yde

Photographers


Art Director

Michael Weber, B.A.

Editor


Listings Editor

Linzi Falk

Editor Emeritus

Alexis Manrodt


B. E. Mintz


Stephen Babcock

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