The New York Times, October 29, 1998

"'Wolf Lullaby': A Horrid Little Girl as Murder Suspect"
by Ben Brantley

Little girls, especially those inclined to kill people, should learn to keep their footwear clean. It was, after all, a pair of bloodstained Mary Janes that got Rhoda, the piano-playing, angel-faced murderess, into such trouble in "The Bad Seed," the popular 1950's melodrama by Maxwell Anderson.

Now Lizzie Gael, the 9-year-old in Hilary Bell's "Wolf Lullaby" at the Atlantic Theater Company, is arousing suspicions by wearing a pair of sneakers spattered in red. What is a mother to do?

The chilling fascination with children who kill obviously hasn't waned in the four decades since Patty McCormack, as Rhoda, became a star playing "Clair de Lune" over the screams of a man burning to death offstage. The differences that separate Rhoda and Lizzie, however, are more than a matter of shoe styles.

Say what you will about Rhoda, she was clearheaded: she knew what she wanted and how to get it, even if it involved homicide. Things aren't so easy for Lizzie, whose sense of self and reality are on the slippery side. Similarly, the play in which she figures is far more reluctant to categorize its antiheroine than Anderson's was. Rhoda was simply a monster, the bad seed of the title; no one in "Wolf Lullaby" is quite sure what to make of Lizzie.

Ms. Bell's 75-minute play, set in a town in Tasmania, is more intriguing for questions it raises than for how it embodies them dramatically. Although performed with the care and conviction that is the hallmark of the Atlantic, which gave us "Mojo" and "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," "Wolf Lullaby" never quite catches fire.

The production, directed in a terse, elliptical style by Neil Pepe, does have its genuinely disturbing moments, more effective for the quietness with which they are executed. Yet there's an overall feeling of dispassion and self-consciousness that keeps you at a distance, letting you pick at the holes in the work's narrative logic.

Lizzie (played by Kate Blumberg, an adult) is the daughter of parents who live apart. She is by no means the suave pretender that Rhoda was. She has troubled dreams, a dark fantasy life and a slightly hysterical manner. Her mother, Angela (Mary McCann), and father, Warren (Jordan Lage), see her behavior as part of the usual growing pains, even when she is picked up for shoplifting by a policeman (Larry Bryggman), who points out that she has also strangled a classmate's canary. Their dismissive attitude changes after a local 2-year-old is strangled to death.

The questions the parents ask of themselves in the murder's aftermath (Why me? What did I do?) are standard in dramas of kids gone bad. The play's more provocative elements come from Ms. Bell's suggestions that mother love has its limits and, even more daringly, that what Lizzie did (if she did it) falls within the realm of a bullying and sadism common among children.

Ms. McCann and Mr. Bryggman are especially good at tracing their characters' respective paths away from and toward affection for the child. And Ms. Blumberg really does seem to inhabit the tortured little girl she plays, rather than talking down to her. The actors do not, however, disguise the structural limpness of "Wolf Lullaby," which includes a climactic scene in which Angela is asked to betray her daughter in a way that has occurred already. It's as if the deliberate fuzziness of the work's moral stance had somehow seeped into its technique.

The production's most sensational (and effective) touches are its sound effects, created by Donald DiNicola, which include macabre rhymes chanted by a chorus of children. That juxtaposition of ghoulishness and guilelessness is perfect for the Halloween season, which somehow seems scarier than it used to. As "Wolf Lullaby" and the increasing number of reports of homicides by children remind us, there's a slender line between innocence and amorality.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company