A Hard Heart

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

No one ever accuses Howard Barker of being subtle. In fact, few people would accuse the pugnacious British playwright of anything at all—if his plays land like punches, what must his punches land like? At least his bruising dramas never beat about the bush: His fables feature brilliant, misunderstood artists and bullshit wars. But while Barker delivers his analogies straight from the shoulder, he defiantly refuses to provide a knockout in the solution department. In A Hard Heart (1992) he seems to pose a simple admonition, but buried inside is puzzlement and despair.

In the worst days of an unspecified siege, a queen (Melissa Friedman) seeks out the genius engineer Riddler (a regal Kathleen Chalfant) to save their city. Even as the people shriek, Riddler and her son (James Wallert) work with quiet determination on a series of costly defenses. Naturally, these gambits must be constructed out of the only materials at hand—houses become walls, palace columns become railways. Allegorically, we stretch as far as the closest mirror to find another country gutting itself to defend itself.

Friedman and Wallert do superb work, matching Chalfant’s slippery, sexy performance. Unfortunately, the final moments aren’t as strong: Barker’s inventiveness begins to stutter, and Chalfant freezes better than she melts. But the author’s moral ambiguity keeps our brains churning past the final curtain. Director Will Pomerantz and designer Narelle Sissons aren’t kidding when they set the piece inside a giant packing container. This is a message depressingly ready for export.

—Helen Shaw

Clurman Theater. By Howard Barker. Dir. Will Pomerantz. With ensemble cast. 1hr 45mins. No intermission.