The Little Flower of East Orange

BEDSIDE MANNERED Shannon, left, visits Burstyn in the hospital.

BEDSIDE MANNERED Shannon, left, visits Burstyn in the hospital. Photograph: Monique Carboni

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

When Michael Shannon shuffles center stage—unshaven and tousle-haired, eyes crazy-shifty, hands cuffed behind his back and clothes looking scruffy—the word that comes to mind is shambolic. By the time Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Little Flower of East Orange comes to its emotionally messy denouement, the word that comes to mind is…you guessed it.

For anyone who has seen this playwright’s work before (Our Lady of 121st Street), such sloppiness should come as no surprise. Guirgis is as gifted as he is unruly, lustily churning out combustible dialogue for argumentative, foulmouthed urbanites who would bellow as soon as look at you. He just has trouble shaping his themes and characters. Little Flower mostly takes place in a Bronx charity hospital, where Therese (Burstyn) is a Jane Doe recovering from a self-inflicted fall from her wheelchair. After finally revealing her identity to the doctors, she is visited by her junkie son (Shannon) and bitterly resentful daughter (Canavan). Into this family drama Guirgis tosses a bunch of dead-end subplots, profane orderlies and the ghost of an abusive Irish-immigrant father. It’s O’Neill meets Mamet on an obscenity-laced night of hard drinking.

In the central role of Therese, the seasoned Burstyn is solid but shies away from the uglier side of her deeply damaged character. Guirgis seems to suggest she’s a functioning drunk, but Burstyn settles for playing the matron spunky, if dotty. At least Shannon, burdened with narration, embraces the gritty despair of Guirgis’s tale; he is a gorgeous mess.

—David Cote

Public Theater. By Stephen Adly Guirgis. Dir. Philip Seymour Hoffman. With Michael Shannon, Ellen Burstyn, Elizabeth Canavan. 2hrs 15mins. One intermission.