February 6, 2008

'Hunting and Gathering" and Inheriting

Family dynasties are an established part of the theater world. I don’t know if that’s because the passion and talent are inherited or if the kids, growing up around actors, just drift into it. But Lionel, Ethel and John Barrymore were the third generation of actors in a family so celebrated that Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman parodied them in The Royal Family, the 1927 comedy about a quirky theatrical clan. Ethel is supposed to have hated the play so much that she threatened to sue. The Redgraves—Vanessa, Corin, Lynn and their children—can claim at least five generations in the business. One of the most delightful days I can remember is when I stumbled upon an exhibit about the family (glorious packrats, they seem to have saved every script, opening night telegram, playbill and ticket stub any one of them ever touched) at the London Theatre Museum when my husband K and I were on vacation a couple of years ago.

Some performances I’ve recently attended suggest that other theatrical families are also passing the torch on to their progeny. Having the famous name and the family contacts probably helped these young legacies get in the door but in all three cases, it's clearly their own abilities that are keeping them on stage. Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of Elia Kazan, the legendary director who brought Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire to the stage and was an original member of the Group Theatre, is winning nice notices as the sassy young tenant who serves as the catalyst for the painful epiphanies in Come Back, Little Sheba. And just last week, I saw
Mamie Gummer (Meryl Streep’s daughter, above left) and Keira Naughton (James Naughton’s daughter, above right) give winning performances in Hunting and Gathering, playwright Brooke Berman’s comedy about the romantic entanglements and real estate woes of four restless young New Yorkers that opened at Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters.

The play itself struck me as no deeper than an episode of the long-running sitcom “Friends.” Although
maybe I would have seen it differently if I were a Twixter, one of those young people between the ages of 20 and 40 who can’t seem to grow up or settle down and continually find themselves betwixt and between jobs, relationships and living spaces. There were amusing lines, Leigh Silverman’s direction certainly kept things moving along nicely and David Korin’s set, a collection of cardboard moving boxes that are stacked to resembled the Manhattan skyline and from which the actors extract various props, was clever.

But as is so often the case these days, it was the acting t
hat saved the evening. Gummer, as the more predatory, hunter-type; and Naughton, as the gatherer, struggling to pull her life together to find both a physical and metaphorical home, added luster to their family honor. Yet it is Michael Chernus who steals the show. Chernus has a natural stage presence, a shaggy sexiness and the ability to show the sadness that so often roils right beneath the best humor. I’ve never seen him before and I don’t know if he’s from an acting family but if he can handle drama as well as he does comedy, he just might start a dynasty of his own.


Jennifer said...

Great post on Hunting and Gathering and theatrical families, but I wanted to let you know that it is Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters not Primary Stages' 59E59 Theaters. Primary Stages actually rents from 59E59. They are two separate entities. If you could correct this on your posting that would be great and thank you for such a well written piece!

jan@broadwayandme said...

Thanks for the comment, and the correction, Jennifer. I'll make the fix.