LENOX — It’s a potentially rich story Lolita Chakrabarti seeks to tell in “Hymn”: Two brothers, unaware that the other even existed for half a century, finally meet and become part of each other’s lives.
But while “Hymn” intermittently cuts deep enough to deliver on the promise of that premise, the play overall feels underdeveloped. Also, in a way, underpopulated.
The upshot is that we feel less invested than we could or should in the fates of the two brothers in this one-act, 95-minute drama, now at Shakespeare & Company in a spare production directed by Regge Life.
“Hymn” is bracketed by a pair of funeral services. Near the start of the play, a 50-year-old man named Gil (Kevin Craig West) has just finished eulogizing his late father, a well-respected businessman and community leader, when he is approached by a man who appears to be the same age, Benny (”ranney”).
He is. Benny and Gil were born within days of each other in 1970. Benny knows this because he, too, is a son of the deceased, from a different mother. Gil’s initial response to this thunderbolt — the revelation of an unknown sibling — is a blend of disbelief and hostility. Convinced that Benny is after money, he snaps: ”The man is barely cold and over his dead body you’re trying your luck.”
What Benny is really after, though, is pretty straightforward — to learn about the father he never knew, and, by extension, come to a fuller understanding of who he is.
In the ensuing months, a bond starts to develop between Benny and Gil, partly built on their shared love of ‘80s music. Turns out the first CD both of them bought was Prince’s “Purple Rain,” in 1984. (A ‘70s classic, “Lean on Me,” by the great Bill Withers, also figures heavily in “Hymn.”) While you certainly can’t fault Gil and Benny’s taste, the play’s reliance on music feels like padding.
In any case, they sing together; they work out with resistance bands, doing bicep curls and punches in unison; they trade stories of their youthful jobs, clothes, and haircuts (Benny had a high-top fade in the ‘80s; for Gil it was a Jheri curl). The play touches briefly on racism at a couple of points, as when Gil tells Benny about a verbal exchange with a female motorist.
Both West and “ranney” deliver such passionate performances that I wished the play gave them more opportunities, by generating more moment-to-moment conflict. One keeps waiting for “Hymn” to shift into a higher gear, but it never quite does, at least not until a major development late in the play.
Laced throughout the play are references by Gil and Benny to wives and children and siblings whom we don’t see. A couple of them sound interesting enough that we wish we did see them. But devoting chunks of dialogue to unseen characters can drain a play of momentum, and it does so here, especially because the dialogue in general is not consistently sharp.
(Boston-area theatergoers will have a chance to sample Chakrabarti’s work in December, when her adaptation of “Life of Pi” opens at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater. “Life of Pi” won an Olivier Award for best new play.)
Gil, who seems to have a need to prove himself, has conceived an ambitious business plan: to open a new store that will combine the sale of stationery with that of clothing. He envisions customers intent on “matching jacket to folder, blouse to portfolio.” His reasoning: “While we choose what we wear, why can’t our stationery match? I’m talking high end, beautiful separates in stationery and clothing.”
Gil believes he’s found the perfect location for the store, too — and a chance to work with his newfound brother, and, perhaps even to outshine their father, whom he believes was always too cautious when it came to business. (Perhaps the old man had the right idea?) Benny, who has managed to cobble together about $10,000 in savings, doesn’t need much persuading to join the stationery-clothing venture.
The denouement of “Hymn” seems inspired by a couple of classic American plays. I won’t say which ones. Let’s just say it does nothing to dispel “Hymn’s” air of predictability.
Play by Lolita Chakrabarti. Directed by Regge Life. Presented by Shakespeare & Company. At Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, Lenox. Through Aug. 28. $22-$62. 413-637-3353, www.Shakespeare.org