Review by Tulis McCall
(22 Jun 2010)
A friend of mine who is a lighting designer once told me a basic rule: when you have a pre-set where the stage is lit, you don’t go to black unless something will be different when the lights come back up. Normally this means an actor or actors will be on the stage as if by magic! You don’t go to black, then bring the lights up, then bring the actors on. You do not do that. It is a big mistake.
This was exactly what happened in this production of Family Dinner. Lights went to black, came back up and then the actor entered. It was only the first of many, many mistakes the evening had in store.
Truth be told, I cannot think of one play that is set in the early 1960’s, so I was eager to see this production. In addition it was going to be about what happened with a family who sat at the dinner table every night and served up bowls of dysfunction. Sounded suspiciously like my childhood, and what better way to research than by watching others?
And in a way I did get a lot of ideas, but not because this play lead by example.
The home of the Wells family in 1963 is nearly iconic in a Twilight Zone sort of way. The mother, Jane (Nancy Negrant) wears crinoline petticoats, dresses, and fabulous aprons. Her hair is coiffed, and the casseroles are always at the ready. Her husband Howard (William Broderick) has his own business and is alternately confident and insecure, in between Word of the Day lessons, humiliating his wife and sipping J&B. Their 2.5 children are teenagers about to crash into The Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Vietnam War, feminism, and civil rights, not to mention the Kennedy assassination, drugs, and free love. It was an astonishing time we lived through, and it sure deserves a look.
Michele Willens does indeed give it a look, but so busy is she to cram together the various touchstones that will resonate with us she fails to identify a plot line. This is a family in the middle of a malaise that will last a lifetime. What Willens focuses on is the litany of events, one after the other. She takes no perspective as a writer. She offers no vantage point or reflection. She deals them like a croupier at a black jack table and appears interested but not enough to step in and let her voice be heard above the drone of unhappiness.
The only modification to her approach in the second act (other than the gargantuan set change) is that the unhappiness is now more or less current. We see grown up children who are lugging their unhappiness around like people at a Landmark Forum. Where is a good trainer when you need one anyway? These characters are so attached to their sadness it is literally stultifying. One of the siblings and her husband decide to take another stab at their marriage instead of chucking it, but by that time the pulse of the play has nearly flat lined. As with the first act there is no story to drive the play forward; there is just a collection of unfortunate people bumping into one another as if they were blindfolded.
Family Dinner is not assisted by any of the actors who appear to have succumbed to the text’s weight. The direction and production elements present hurdle after hurdle. Ms. Nagrant is forced to wear two wigs that looked as though they were pulled from a storage unit. There are pauses that feel interminable, blocking that lacks the slightest logic, and in Act Two we watch rosé wine being served and swilled at room temperature while the family - assembled to celebrate a graduation – squeezes themselves onto a small sofa and feasts on chips. Hello?
This is the kind of play that makes you feel as though you put your head down on a bowl of shaved ice. It is numbing.
I don’t know what events conspired to bring this production together, but they should be reviewed. There were errors of omission and commission. Ms. Willens is clearly a sociologist who has an opinion or two about the times in which she has lived. She needs to find someone to walk that path with her and point out the forest, not just the trees.