(COMEDY; BLUE HERON ARTS CENTER; 99 SEATS; $35 TOP)
NEW YORK A Naked Angels presentation of a play in two acts by Bryan Goluboff. Directed by Dante Albertie. Sets, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Richard Shawn Dudley; lighting, Russel H. Champa; sound, J. Hagenbuckle; stage manager, Uriel Menson. Opened Dec. 6, 1999. Reviewed Dec. 4. Running time: 2 HOURS.
Ada Phyllis Newman Harry Fisher Stevens Eliy Saundra McClain Rebecca Annabella Sciorra Ellis Charles Malik Whitfield
Bryan Goluboff's new play "Shyster" works most effectively when it's showcasing the offbeat talents of Fisher Stevens. Too often reduced to playing a scuzzy sidekick, the actor claims center stage here and never fails to find inventive riffs on the age-old role of the no-good son who returns too late to comfort a widowed mother.
"You come for the last day of shiva, just in time for the danish," Ada tells her son Harry (Stevens). As wonderfully underplayed by Phyllis Newman, Ada is a perfect foil -- a walling wall of solid rock Harry can flail away at but never move. Unfortunately, near the play's conclusion when the comedy turns soggy, she does budge, begging Harry to stay. Goluboff ultimately ties up too many loose ends too quickly, and Stevens' Harry is far too messy a man to be boxed in with platitudes.
Besides his no-nonsense mother, Harry gets to bounce off the equally implacable ghost of his father, who has left the family a Lower East Side tenement that has rats in the cellar and produces next to no rent. Upon Harry's return, the news only gets worse: Before his death Papa befriended a young black man named Ellis (Charles Malik Whittield), and promised him and his mother, Elly (Saundra McClain), a rent-free existence.
In Harry's absence, Ellis fulfilled the role of building superintendent and surrogate son. If that isn't guilt-inducing enough, Harry's super-sister Rebecca (Annabella Sciorra) somehow made it back from the Gaza Strip in time for the funeral.
Once home, Harry becomes more than a bum. He must prove himself by taking care of his nearly bankrupt mother -- which means turning shyster and demanding rent money from Ellis. Under Dante Albertie's direction, "Shyster" wins its laughs on nuances of character rather than the occasional sitcom zinger: "Somebody's got to confiscate your Ebonics dictionary," the polished Ellis tells hipster Harry.
Goluboff has Harry dig his own grave for most of the play, and Stevens obviously relishes the task. With his taxidermy hair and a face that congeals like something kept too long at the bottom of a garbage can, this actor embraces premature decrepitude with real gusto: He is Jack Nicholson on Slimfast. The stage begins to sag whenever he leaves it. Sciorra brings her usual brooding, edgy intelligence to Rebecca, but the role is underwritten.
Ultimately, "Shyster" resembles one of those 1930s melodramas in which some wise-cracking movie queen entertains us with non-stop bitchery but in the final reel must receive her comeuppance and turn into a noble bore. Likewise, Goluboff ends his play with several speeches of forgiveness as Harry transmogrifies into the nice Jewish boy his father always wanted. The real Harry, the shyster, wouldn't buy it for a minute.