Leo has long dominated and even bullied his family, but he’s also looked after them. Now he needs them desperately, but he’s not sure any of them will come through for him as he has for them.
He wants one of them to give him a kidney.
The premise of “Our Brother’s Son,” running at Signature Theater Center through June 24, is a promising one, and Charles Gluck, though a first-time playwright, might seem like the right person to explore it: He was a practicing physician for thirty years. But, while the play initially is a workmanlike family dramedy, it begins to feel like a missed opportunity….until it takes a sharp turn into an outright misfire.
Leo (Allen McCullough) harshly criticizes his younger brother David (Dan Sharkey), who is also his employee, but we eventually learn that he brought David into the business to save him, after David tried to commit suicide, and that Leo paid for the college education of David’s son Bradley (Harrison Chad.) Similarly, Leo treats his wife Susan (Midori Tashima Nakamura) dismissively and mocks his sister Gail (Liz Larsen) for eating a vegan diet, but Leo has always acted protectively toward Gail, and his wife is a given in his life.
Much of this is made clear in the first half hour of this 90-minute play, along with scenes establishing various relationships among the five other family members – Gail and Bradley get along well, Bradley and his mother Mindy (Liz Larsen) don’t get along at all, and neither do Mindy and Leo, etc.
Then Leo learns that both his kidneys are failing, and that he’s medically not a good candidate for dialysis, nor high enough up on the official donor list to be assured of staying alive until he’s at the top. So at Thanksgiving, Susan announces that they need the family members to take blood tests to see if they’re a medical match to donate a kidney to Leo.
At this point, I wish the playwright had shared more of his medical knowledge and experience. Susan hands the family members pamphlets that inform them about the issues involved, but we in the audience aren’t made privy to much of it. We aren’t told clearly what the risks are, and don’t get enough help in assessing the reactions or understanding the motives of those characters whose blood matches. We’re not asked to engage in the ethical complications of modern medicine. And if the situation lends itself to a nuanced exploration of family dynamics, that’s cut short for the sake of soap opera – by which I mean, the revelation of a deep, dark secret that causes all the characters to yell relentlessly at one another and split asunder. (I won’t spoil the secret, but trust me, even if you can overlook the holes in the logic, it won’t rock your world.) This is followed by a sudden catastrophe that would seem too abrupt and too convenient even for an episode of General Hospital. And, like an episode of a soap opera, the play ends in a kind of cliffhanger.
If the script doesn’t feel up to the standards of the best of Off-Broadway, and David Alpert’s direction doesn’t help much, the production of “Our Brother’s Son” is both professionally designed and competently cast. The diagnosis is not good, but the prognosis is not necessarily fatal. I say: Amputate the ending, enlarge the brainy material, and it may be worth giving new life to “Our Brother’s Son.”
Our Brother’s Son
At Signature Theater Center through June 24
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Written by Charles Gluck
Directed by David Alpert
Scenic design by Adam Koch, costume design by Lindsay McWilliams, lighting design by Alan C. Edwards, sound design by Megumi Katayama and composer Nathan Leigh, production stage manager Shelley Miles
Cast: Harrison Chad as Bradley, Leeanne Hutchison as Gail, Liz Larsen as Mindy, Allen McCullough as Leo, Midori Tashima Nakamura as Susan, Dan Sharkey as David.