In the first minutes of Keith Bunin’s quixotic The Busy World Is Hushed, Brandt (Hamish Linklater), a young man being interviewed by Hannah (Jill Clayburgh), an Episcopal minister, recites the prayer that gives the play it’s title: “O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed…”
The insertion of that prayer—and Bunin’s sometimes crackling dialogue touching on the meaning of faith—sets a reverent tone, but ultimately the play is less a spiritual journey than Oedipal drama with an intellectual varnish. There are plenty of moments for Hannah to offer daring Biblical views and rhetorical gifts, but the return of her son Thomas (Luke Macfarlane) is what’s dramatic.
Like his mother, Thomas’ father was a religious studies scholar, but he died a probable suicide before his birth. This caused Hannah to devote her life supremely to God, which in turn bred in Thomas a rabid disdain and resentment of his mother. Now the age of his father at his death, Thomas’ daredevil lifestyle still aggrieves Hannah: he’s splattered in blood and full of porcupine quills the first time we see him.
Brandt, meanwhile, really just wants the job of working for Hannah. So hired, he’s distracted from his own esoteric writing projects and, more important, from dealing with his father’s terminal cancer and forever being single.
It’s convenient that Brandt and Thomas are both gay, but in a twist that makes the play moving (if too self-consciously erudite), Hannah senses their attraction and encourages shy Brandt to pursue Thomas since a successful romance might keep her son nearer to the hearth.
Wild-child Thomas sees Hannah as an overbearing monster, and initially that seems plausible, but Hannah’s concern is real, and if Brandt never mentions that she’s setting the two up and if Brandt’s feelings for Thomas are real, what’s the harm? The truth, naturally, comes out, but even that doesn’t make Hannah a monster. The gorgon is Thomas, a Peter Pan possessed by powerful demons that pulverize his emotional control.
Mark Brokaw’s naturalistic staging curiously contrasts with Bunin’s writing: these people, who speak in too-elegant turns of phrase, move on stage in ways that always seem motivated and justified. While there are few scenes in which anyone sounds like a real person—even ones you’d meet at Columbia U. where the play ostensibly takes place—at least what they say to each other is sharp and acute.
Linklater matches Clayburgh moment for moment with inspired line readings and genuine reactions—his Brandt is grounded no matter what the playwright tosses at him. Macfarlane’s acting is less assured: He looks the lost boy but hasn’t fully connected to the bad boy in Thomas as yet. Watch him handle his Act II confrontation with Clayburgh and you sense where Macfarlane may yet go as the run of the play proceeds. Perhaps it’s a matter of letting Thomas, at last, find himself.
Through July 9. Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.), 212-279-4200; $65.