Review: 'The Little Flower of East Orange'

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Between its household saints and crackhouse sinners, the unorthodox Catholic world of playwright Stephen Adly Guirguis fairly teems with bruising conflict and deal-breaking despair.

Does it feel true, though? If your idea of theatrical truth involves raw emotion, the rawer the better, you've come to the right recovery meeting. Guirguis' characters are as likely to swear in church as to pray in a bar; they're Doubting Thomases, for sure, but they do show up to check out the wounds and wonder.

In his searing, if lopsided, new play, "The Little Flower of East Orange," directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, the wounds nursed by a shambling addict named Danny (Michael Shannon) and his shrill sister Justina (Elizabeth Canavan) still haven't scabbed over, though these two look to be in their 40s. The wounds get opened when their aged mother, Therese (Ellen Burstyn), turns up nearly dead, and at first stubbornly anonymous, in a Bronx hospital.

In the sort of tragic paradox Guirguis seems to relish, these damaged adult children can't move on precisely because Mom so badly wants them to. Therese, who's named after St. Therese of Lisieux (aka "the Little Flower"), won't quite commit to suicide, but her passive-aggressive efforts to vanish only cause more trouble for her children.

The family complications didn't start there. Therese's imposing father, Francis James (Howie Seago), was a deaf alcoholic with a violent streak, and he continues to loom large in her mind as a kind of ambivalent guardian devil.

Grim stuff, no question, but Guirguis has never had a problem locating pain's funny bone. Therese's nurses, Espinoza (David Zayas) and Magnolia (Lisa Colon-Zayas), provide a steady stream of tough love and straight talk. And in well-turned bedside bickers with Mom, both of Therese's children make hilarious, harrowing spectacles of themselves: Justina in a winningly absurd duet for violin and whine, Danny in a simmering frenzy over his ex-wife.

Guirguis is not always so surehanded. The apparitions that emerge from behind Narelle Sissons' set start out as playful theatrical devices and end up as prosaic illustrations of an ever-lengthening back story. And the play's last 30 minutes are a maddening jumble of revelation and rehash, though the stunning, beatific Burstyn manages to make them riveting, opposite the haunting, haunted Shannon.

The LAByrinth was essentially formed around Guirguis' plays (and vice versa), and, as usual, this production is sympathetically and definitively crafted, with the help of Hoffman, the company's co-artistic director. "The Little Flower of East Orange" may not grow to the heights it could, but it blooms defiantly, and ultimately cheeringly, through the cracks in the city sidewalk.

THE LITTLE FLOWER OF EAST ORANGE. Written by Stephen Adly Guirguis. Directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Through May 4 at the Public Theatre, 425 Lafayette St., Manhattan. For tickets, call 212-539-8500. Seen Thursday.

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