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STAGE REVIEW

Secrets concealed, revealed in ‘Five Down’

Stephanie Clayman (far left), Chloe Leamon (center), and Alice Duffy in the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre production of “Five Down, One Across.’’ Stephanie Clayman (far left), Chloe Leamon (center), and Alice Duffy in the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre production of “Five Down, One Across.’’ (Boston Playwrights’ Theatre)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / October 5, 2010

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Everything is neat and tidy in the Brookline home of Betty, the 50-something academic at the center of “Five Down, One Across.’’

Everything, that is, but the emotions that spill out during the course of a tumultuous evening as Betty (Chloe Leamon) struggles to find the courage to tell her 85-year-old mother, Madeleine (Alice Duffy), that she is gay.

It is a truth about herself that Betty, an only child, has gone to extraordinary, even implausible, lengths to conceal from the grimly unyielding, staunchly Catholic Madeleine. The daughter’s attempt to finally clue Mom in is greatly complicated by the fact that Madeleine appears to be slipping into dementia, to judge by the way she encodes her sentences with cryptic phrases drawn from crossword puzzles.

An equivalent puzzle is why playwright Michael Towers pulls focus from this central dilemma so often in “Five Down,’’ shifting attention to subplots and subsidiary characters, including an overbearing friend of Betty’s named Kitten who almost takes over the play at some points.

One result is that a key character, Sharon, who is the love of Betty’s life and is played by a fine and nuanced actress, Stephanie Clayman, recedes for stretches of “Five Down,’’ now receiving its premiere at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre under the direction of Sidney Friedman. Towers makes another significant miscalculation by undercutting Betty’s big moment with a revelation involving her teenage son that feels gratuitous. In general, Towers tries to pack too much within the slender frame of his play.

Yet for all its flaws, and all the moments when it strains credulity, “Five Down’’ has a genuine heartbeat, and that’s no small thing. There’s a complicated humanity to Betty and Madeleine, who are well played by Leamon and Duffy, and in their exchanges Towers shows a knack for dialogue that blends drama and humor, suggesting the playwright’s awareness that when it comes to family, the urge to laugh is never far from the urge to cry.

Towers also demonstrates an empathetic understanding that there are many lives of, if not quiet desperation, then at least quiet frustration, unfolding behind suburban doors. Betty wears a trapped look from the beginning of the play, and small wonder: Having moved her mother into the home she has shared with Sharon for eight years because Madeleine claims to be dying, the daughter gets tangled in the complicated web of deceit she has woven.

She has hidden not only her sexual orientation from her mother, but also the fact that she got divorced from her husband 15 years earlier. Oh, and because Madeleine doesn’t believe mothers should work, Betty has concealed the fact that she is a successful and prominent professor of medieval studies at Wellesley College.

Would such an accomplished woman really be that intimidated by her mother, however formidable mom may be, that she would stuff so many important facts of her life into a closet? Doubtful. “They didn’t have lesbians when she was a girl,’’ Betty says dryly to Sharon. “They hadn’t been invented yet.’’ Sharon, fed up with such rationalizations, delivers an ultimatum to Betty: Tell your mother the truth about us tonight, or we’re history. For Betty, that step would mean breaking free.

So the question of will-she-or-won’t-she hangs over the weekly “Taco Night’’ that Betty and Sharon are hosting. Their guests include another gay couple, Ramona (Jessica Webb) and the aforementioned Kitten (Ellen Peterson). At first, Kitten comes across as a charmingly subversive provocateur (she wears a T-shirt that says “I’m not a lesbian, but my girlfriend is’’), but she soon wears out her welcome. When the audience should be focusing on the tense triangle of Betty, Sharon, and Madeleine, we instead are absorbing yet another lewd wisecrack from Kitten. An additional distraction arrives in the form of Betty’s son, Christopher (Ross Neuenfeldt), who pops in with some news for mom.

When Towers finally returns to the core of “Five Down,’’ he delivers a potent showdown scene between Betty and Madeleine. It revolves around a pivotal event from their shared past that each of them interprets differently, and it suggests that some families might be a puzzle that just can’t be solved.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

FIVE DOWN, ONE ACROSS

Play by Michael Towers

Directed by: Sidney Friedman. Sets, Anthony Phelps. Lights, Uel Bergey. Costumes, Amelia Gossett. Sound, Ryan Anderson.

At: Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, through Oct. 24. Tickets: $30. 866-811-4111, www.bostonplaywrights.org