Reviewed by George Basler

The dysfunctional working-class family at the heart of Edward Allan Baker’s play The Framer makes the Tyrones of Long Day’s Journey into Night look like Ozzie and Harriet.

The title character, Ronnie, is dying of cirrhosis of the liver brought on by years of alcoholism. His tough-talking wife, Patsy, is taking care of him despite years of spousal abuse. Her brother, Falcon, has accused his wife’s sister’s husband of sexually molesting Falcon’s eight-year-old daughter.

Meanwhile, Lorraine, Falcon’s wife, is an emotional wreck who professes her brother-in-law’s innocence and begs Ronnie and Patsy to intervene.

The play, which is now in the middle of a three-weekend run at KNOW Theatre in downtown Binghamton, has all the elements of a wrenching family drama. But Baker has more in mind. He injects large amounts of black humor into the action, making The Framer play seem like absurdist comedy at times.

If you’re willing to overlook some plot points that stretch credibility, the mixture of humor and tension is an absorbing one, thanks to quality performances by the six-person KNOW cast under the tight direction of Samantha Rose.

The action takes place over one day in a picture framing shop in a New England mill town. Ronnie, played by KNOW’s Artistic Director Tim Gleason, is working to make amends for a life marred by heavy drinking and spousal abuse. This includes attending church to ask for forgiveness and working hard in his framing shop to leave Patsy a little money after his death.

Patsy (Amy L. Smith) copes with her husband’s impending death with a brash attitude and gallows humor. (Her telephone greeting for anyone who calls is “just waiting for Ronnie to die.”)

Falcon (Joe Hoffmann) arrives, seething with anger about the alleged abuse of his daughter. He’s accompanied by a corrupt cop (Nick DeLucia), who hands Falcon a gun and taunts him about whether he has the guts to kill the alleged abuser. Falcon hatches the bizarre plan of having Ronnie to do it for him, arguing the terminally ill man will become a media celebrity if he does the murder.

Baker’s play makes it clear that both Ronnie and Falcon have been scarred by emotionally abusive fathers. Ronnie’s revelations come in the form of hallucinations about a traumatic event in his childhood.

This is a lot of emotional turmoil to plug into one two-hour play. Baker’s tone is occasionally overwrought, and some of the more melodramatic moments strain believability. Still, his play grabs your attention and holds it. The characters pulsate with life, and he has done a skillful job weaving darkly comic moments into the action. He’s an effective storyteller.

This is especially true in a long scene in the second act when Falcon works to convince Ronnie to do the killing. The back and forth between the two men is darkly hilarious. Baker’s ability to get laughs while maintaining the scene’s tension is impressive.

Baker also does a good job presenting the quiet, but emotionally charged, moments between Ronnie and Patsy, his long-suffering wife. Gleason and Smith play them well.

Gleason gives a finely shaded performance as a troubled man filled with regrets who is looking for a sense of redemption as he nears death. Smith matches him with a performance that shows Patsy’s feisty exterior is concealing her own hidden pain. A short speech in which she hopes Ronnie will tell her that he loves her once before he dies is the most poignant moment in the play.

Hoffmann gives a sharply detailed performance as the weak-minded Falcon who is a tinder box with legs. The performance could easily go too far over the top, but Hoffman plays the character with a restraint that hints at Falcon’s self-loathing under his bluster.

Annie Fabiano lends solid support as Falcon’s emotionally conflicted wife, who is hiding her own dark secret that comes out in a key moment at the end of the play.

Scot Saggiomo, who plays the suspected molester, has a tense scene at the end of the play, when the corrupt cop delivers the man to Ronnie’s frame shop for the kill. Saggiomo makes you feel the character’s fear and desperation.

One of the play’s weaknesses is the character of the corrupt cop. While DeLucia’s performance is truly frightening, the actor can’t disguise the fact that the character is a one-dimensional stereotype. The role exists merely as a plot device.

While The Framer has its flaws, Baker’s play is one that holds your attention. The playwright has cooked a compelling stew of domestic drama, and the KNOW production does a good job serving it.

IF YOU GO: KNOW Theatre is presenting Edward Allan Baker’s The Framer on weekends through April 28 at its theater, 74 Carroll St., Binghamton. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 p.m.; Sunday performances are at 3 p.m. Tickets at $25 (seniors, $20; students, $15) can be ordered through KNOW’s website,