THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Harm for the holidays

At the Huntington, collaborators reunite for a new play that reveals a family's tragic flaws at festive times

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By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / November 14, 2010

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Peter DuBois’s speech has gotten a little salty lately, but he blames it on his work. The Huntington Theatre Company artistic director has spent the past several weeks directing “Vengeance Is the Lord’s,’’ a new play by his frequent collaborator, Bob Glaudini, and it turns out the play’s language is infectious.

“I’m in a staff meeting and every other word is [bleep!] coming out of my mouth, because of these characters,’’ DuBois said with a laugh the other morning before rehearsal. “And I don’t normally talk like that.’’

The play, whose world-premiere production is now in previews at the Boston University Theatre, is a family drama spiked with comedy and set over a series of holiday gatherings from Thanksgiving to Easter, but any resemblance to a Norman Rockwell-style clan is purely coincidental.

The Horvath family — two long-divorced parents and their three adult children — are grappling with the impulse for absolution and the urge for revenge as the murderer of the family’s fourth child comes up for parole. The mother, in her mid-50s and beset by physical woes, is tempted toward forgiveness, attributing the frailty of her body to the anger she’s harbored. The father, favoring the Old Testament eye-for-an-eye school of thought, wants retribution.

But in addition to being grieving survivors and people who genuinely love one another, the Horvaths are a family that has spent decades building up various dark and seedy criminal enterprises, all of which have helped them rise financially in the world. Killing as a means of getting what they want is not foreign, or necessarily even objectionable, to them. They occupy various places on the spectrum between good and evil, but only the youngest child seems to have a moral compass that points due north.

“These are characters who started to move lines,’’ DuBois said, “and it got to a point where they crossed a certain line and there really was no turning back. So by that I mean, you know, you start putting the cheap liquor in the Grey Goose bottle. And then you start taking deliveries of stolen liquor, and then you participate in the hijacking of the liquor truck, and then you’re paying extortion money, and then you’re loan-sharking.’’

Glaudini, like LAByrinth Theater Company, the New York-based ensemble to which he belongs, prefers to tell stories about people who live on the margins of society. Such is the case in “Vengeance Is the Lord’s’’ and also in the two other plays of his that DuBois has directed, both for LAByrinth at the Public Theater: “Jack Goes Boating,’’ which starred Philip Seymour Hoffman and was a hit in early 2007, and “A View From 151st Street,’’ which opened LAByrinth’s season the following autumn. (Hoffman also starred in and directed the film adaptation of “Jack Goes Boating’’ that came out this fall. Glaudini wrote the screenplay.)

While “Jack Goes Boating’’ is a romantic comedy about an oddball title character and “151st Street’’ examines the nexus of drugs and violence in Harlem, where Glaudini lived at the time, they and “Vengeance Is the Lord’s’’ all involve what he calls “characters who are perhaps injured in one way or another.’’

“They make for better theater, I think,’’ the playwright said in a separate interview, his lanky frame folded into a chair in a tiny office near a Huntington rehearsal hall. “But in this particular play it may have something to do with things that seem to be in the air in the last few years.’’ By that, he explained, he meant people who “may be talking about righteous things while they’re also doing things that aren’t so righteous — on a million different levels.’’

“But I do believe,’’ he added, “that the characters who are marginal in one way, in terms of their behavior, not just their level of poverty or something, give me the opportunity to see how they are served or are not served by a kind of middle-class morality.’’

Class origins and aspirations, it turns out, are part of the reason Glaudini set the play over Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and Easter. As the Horvaths have risen from the lower working class, he said, they have continued to esteem middle-class ideals — including such conventions as holiday traditions.

“While their personal morals on some level are being devalued, they’re trying to find . . . contact with certain rituals that have value, or could have value, or once had value,’’ he said.

Glaudini, 68, who grew up working-class in San Diego, began writing plays in the 1970s when he was a member of Theater Genesis in New York. Already a director and an actor, he was inspired to write, he said, by the realization that he would probably get to cast actors he knew, each of whom would earn enough to pay the rent for a couple of months.

For him, the writing process begins with an image in his mind. In the case of “Vengeance Is the Lord’s,’’ it involved two characters, one of whom says to the other something that can’t be printed in this newspaper. Glaudini then follows the characters to find out what the story is.

“I don’t use an outline, and so that’s hit-and-miss. There are plays that are definitely misses that no one’s ever gonna do,’’ he said, adding that he nonetheless wouldn’t know how to take a different approach to writing.

“The other thing is, if I know everything that’s gonna happen, why write it? What am I discovering?’’ he asked. “You begin to discover your characters and attitudes that you have and, you know, you divide into many different people. In writing, you can be supporting different points of view, some of which you don’t agree with at all. It’s the many voices that come up in you, and it’s surprising.’’

Though that emotional affinity with people whose actions repel him can be unsettling, Glaudini spoke with deep sympathy for the characters in “Vengeance’’ who have committed grievous wrongs in order to achieve a measure of worldly success.

“That’s kind of the problem that they’re in and that they’re suffering from,’’ he said. “I don’t know if it’s that they’ve doomed themselves, but there’s a certain tragic flaw in their pursuit of the good.’’

As for why families in general are rich dramatic fodder, he laughed. “ ’Cause there’s such love and hate at the same table,’’ said the playwright, a father of three daughters who raised his two younger children alone after he got divorced. “Everyone’s trying to make it be this unit that many times it isn’t.’’

DuBois, who is the youngest of three sons, had a slightly different take.

“When you’re with your family, there’s this part of you that can get exposed that isn’t otherwise exposed,’’ he said. “There’s a level of honesty and bad behavior that people can fall into when they’re with their family ’cause they don’t have the other sort of societal pressures on them. You know, the home is sort of in many ways a safe place for bad behavior.’’

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes@globe.com.

VENGEANCE IS THE LORD’S Presented by Huntington Theatre Company at Boston University Theatre, through Dec. 12. Tickets: $25-$89; discounts available. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org