June 23, 2010

"Family Dinner" is Undercooked

Going to the theater is always a crap shot.  But what you’ll get is even less predictable with the shows, often produced on pocket change, that rent space in the theater complex on 42nd Street known as Theatre Row.  That's because lacking the resources of bigger budget shows that can dazzle with high-tech sets, fancy costumes and other diverting stagecraft, all these show can really count on is the play and the players. 

 A couple of weeks ago my husband K and I went there and hit a small jackpot with the final performance of The Glass House, a smart play about art and ambition as refracted through the uneasy relationship between the great modernist architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. Harris Yulin, as van der Rohe, lead an excellent cast that worked magic on a simple but elegant set.  And it was extra fun for us to see them all float into the West Bank Café for their closing night party while we were having an after-show dinner there.

A few days later, however, I rolled snake eyes when I saw another show at Theatre Row that was so poorly done that I did something I almost never do:  I left at intermission.  And then, this week, my friend Jesse and I drew another shaky hand when we went to the opening night performance of Family Dinner, a domestic drama that is playing in the Row's Beckett Theatre space through July 3.

Family Dinner focuses on the archetypal Wells family, whose members include a hard-drinking and domineering dad, his repressed wife and their three kids—a nerdy but sensitive older son, an overindulged athlete and a precocious daughter.  The play opens in 1963, months before the Kennedy assassination, and the second act revisits the Wells in 2002, a few months after the 9/11 attacks.

The challenge, of course, is that the disintegration of the white-bread American family and the lingering aftershocks of the upheavals of the ‘60s are now oft-told tales.  So if you’re going to tell them again, you really need to come up with some fresh insights or to burrow deeper into the emotional resonance of that time.  Alas, playwright Michele Willens does neither. Her Family Dinner is composed entirely of leftovers from the families-drive-each-other-crazy-but-love-one-another-anyway buffet.

Director Jamibeth Margolis doesn’t help either. Scenes just lurch along one after the other. And she gets big demerits for giving set designer Josh Zangen the go-ahead for big awkward sets that tell us nothing about the family.  In this case, less definitely would have been more.

The acting is provided by a pack of wild cards.  The relatively large 10-member cast ranges from newbies making their professional stage debut to veteran barnstormers from the regional circuit, with the old timers coming off best, although Lily Corvo, who plays the teen daughter in both time periods, shows promise.

The audience, which seemed largely composed of family and friends (including the actor Patrick Breen who has worked with Willens in the past and whose own under-appreciated show Next Fall just posted a closing notice for July 4) was supportive.  But I left Family Dinner hungry for something a little more filling.

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