THE BASICS: The Kavinoky Theatre
gives us the WNY premiere of a well-regarded new Dysfunctional Family Drama by Jon Robin Baitz. It’s political in its underpinnings, fueled by generational conflict and acrobatically bridging the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Peter Palmisano directs a cast of five. The play, which runs a little over two hours with its single intermission, plays weekends at the Kav through December 16th.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: The action unfolds on Christmas Eve, 2004–in Palm Springs, California. Lyman and Polly Wyeth, “waspified GOP zombies” (their son’s semi-serious/semi-joking appelation), welcome home their troubled liberal daughter Brooke, after an absence of six years. Writer Brooke, slowly recovering from serious depression, brings along a memoir that blasts the lid off the nuclear family circa 1974, placing the blame for her older brother’s suicide squarely on the shoulders of her parents. The memoir, it seems, has already been accepted for publication, and Brooke, amazingly, is seeking her parents’ approval on this. But does she know what really happened way back then?
THE PLAY, THE PLAYERS AND THE PRODUCTION: The cast is uniformly fine, with KristenTripp Kelley especially solid as the anguished Brooke. Her performance is both the most realistic and nuanced. David Lamb plays her father Lyman, an obvious Ronald Reagan knock-off. He has worked hard to extinguish his English accent, but never sounds particularly American. The result is quite curious. Lamb doesn’t have much to do in the first act, but explodes with long-repressed pain and grief in the second–an affecting portrayal. Barbara Link LaRou, as Brooke’s mother Polly, has a rather unsympathetic role–she’s a control freak and perennial fault-finder, in addition to being a born-again Republican–but she does manage to capture a modicum of our sympathy by the end. Lisa Ludwig pulls off a little something new as Silda Grauman, Polly’s poor, loopy, angry, liberal, recovering-alcoholic sister. It’s a very nice turn. Sadly, playwright Baitz lets her go silent toward the end of the blistering Act 2, Scene 1–and the character just sort of melts away. Matt Witten rounds out the cast as Brooke’s younger brother Trip–a highly rationalizing, me-first TV producer who has learned to keep his emotional distance. Witten grows on you. He’s also got his big speech in Act 2, Scene 1–where the play packs considerable punch.
Some of Baitz’ dialogue seems a bit stilted, precious–written too obviously with the audience in mind. And the play ends quite weakly, I think, with a little scene in a distant bookstore some six years later. Here, we get some late revelations that don’t ring true, at least to me. One final thought on the play: Baitz has written a play about assimilated Jews and has left that aspect of it entirely unexplored. A seriously wasted opportunity, I’d say.
Director Palmisano guides the actors about smoothly, and gets good performances all around. David King has fashioned yet another beautiful set. Tom Makar’s sound contributions are not up to his usual high standard, but it’s a pretty minor quibble.
In summary, here’s a nice, respectable domestic drama with one really powerhouse scene, well acted and gracefully staged by the folks at the Kavinoky. Despite the presence of a large, well decorated Christmas tree on stage, this is by no means a Christmas show. Still, if you’ve got your shopping holiday done, and you’re in a reflective mood, it’s well worth a look!
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!