October 19, 2011

"We Are Here" Ends Up Nowhere

It’s not every young playwright who makes her New York debut at the Manhattan Theatre Club.  Or who has that play directed by the hot- director-of-the-moment Sam Gold. Or designed by the great-designer-for-all-seasons John Lee Beatty. Or performed by a cast of stage vets like Mark Blum, Amy Irving and the very good Jeremy Shamos and Hollywood up-and-comers like Oscar Isaac. 

Of course, Zoe Kazan, the author of the new play We Live Here, which opened last week at MTC, isn’t just any young playwright.  As the granddaughter of the legendary Elia Kazan, she’s theatrical royalty. And as a rising young actress whose performances in Come Back, Little Sheba, The Seagull and Angels in America have made her a critic’s darling, she’s an insider with clout and connections. (Click here to read a Q&A with her.) 

The truth of the matter is that it’s unlikely this play would have been produced—and certainly not in this way—if it had been submitted under any other name.

Kazan isn’t untalented.  But at 28, she’s a young playwright who has yet to figure out that a facility with natural-sounding dialog isn’t enough to sustain a play. The events in We Are Here are improbable and, as my theatergoing buddy Bill noted, all its conflict hinges on a not-so-surprising secret.

The action centers around the Batemans, an affluent Salingeresque family in which all the members are arty and witty on the surface and troubled and sad underneath. The play opens as they’re preparing for the elder daughter’s wedding that coming weekend. The festive mood is upturned when the younger daughter brings home an unexpected date whose previous relationship with the family stirs up memories of a past tragedy. 

Mom, dad, the daughters and their guys all wander around the big beautiful living room that Beatty has created and angst about the past 
and the future. Each gets a predictably cathartic moment. 

Not even Sam Gold, who has done such wonderful work with the plays of Annie Baker (a young playwright, whose plays actually deserve the kind of top-shelf treatment this one has gotten) is able to create much magic here. Gold keeps everyone moving but there’s only so much he can do to cover the holes in the plot and too many of the jokes land with a hollow thud.

An even more embarrassing silence greeted the abrupt ending of the play, which seemed as though the author had stopped in mid-thought to answer a phone call and then forgot that she needed to finish the idea. 

The audience at the performance Bill and I attended sat uneasily until the actors sheepishly shuffled out for the curtain call.  I took it as a  sign that Kazan probably shouldn’t give up her day job.

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