Sunday, May 12, 2013

6. Review of A FAMILY FOR ALL OCCASIONS (May 12, 2013)

6.     Review of A FAMILY FOR ALL OCCASIONS (May 12, 2013)
The Labyrinth Theatre on Bank Street in Greenwich Village is yet another diminutive Off Broadway house located nearly a half-mile from the nearest subway station, but the work done there is often worth the trek. Last year’s RADIANCE was much duller than its name suggests, but hope returned when I headed to the Labyrinth yesterday to see Bob Glaudini’s A FAMILY FOR ALL OCCASIONS. After all, Philip Seymour Hoffman, closely associated with the Labyrinth, was directing, and the excellent cast included two highly respected New York theatre veterans, Jeffrey DeMunn and Deirdre O’Connell. Charlie Saxton, who plays Thomas Janes’s nerdy, oddball son on the HBO series HUNG, is cast in a similarly grungy role here. I’m happy to report that the results, while mediocre, were more encouraging than not, and that theatergoers will find this a well-staged, effectively acted drama; unfortunately, its depiction of a dysfunctional family is overly familiar, and it barely manages to sustain one’s interest during its two episodically structured acts.

            The auditorium has an L-shaped configuration, with the audience on each line of the L and the stage in the angled space between. On stage is the living/dining room of a conventional lower-middle class home in a “midsize Northeastern city,” with flowered wallpaper, an upstage archway leading to the bathroom and kitchen to either side, and bookcases filled with neatly arranged volumes, bric-a-brac, and a record player. Overhead is the suggestion of a coffered ceiling. David Meyer’s homey set has a few surprises built into it, however, which come into play when walls slide away so that hidden rooms can move forward and then disappear when no longer needed. One such room is the bathroom, in which yet another bathtub scene is played with an actress in the nude; fine with me, after too many male butts on view during 2012-2013. When the room is back in place and the bookcase that had covered it restored to its position, the wall behind the bookcase remains out of sight so we can see, through the shelves, a scene in which a character urinates. (The device is clever but the scene, designed to show the urinator’s slovenly toilet habits, is not really necessary; the play contains enough other evidence of his grossness to make the point.)

Howard (DeMunn), the paterfamilias, loves to read, especially adventure books, and also has a fascination with words. He is a recently retired electrician, while his second wife, May, to whom he’s been married for 21 years, has a factory job. Howard and Sue have two children (they’re her stepchildren, actually), a daughter, Sue (Justine Lupe), in her late twenties and a son, Sam (Charlie Saxton), in his early twenties. The only other character is a well-dressed, handsome, young black man, Oz (William Jackson Harper). Howard, like Richard in CORE VALUES, tries as hard as he can to maintain a positive attitude when surrounded by disappointment. He tells May, “Stay on the sunny side,” whenever she leaves for work, and always seems to be battling for self-restraint when his family’s unpleasant behavior threatens to overwhelm him. Sue is attractive but disaffected and sexually promiscuous; tall, thin, and blonde, with pink streaks, she has the old Kate Moss heroin-chic look. Sam is short, bearded, stumpy, geeky-looking, and emotionally withdrawn; he has an as yet unrecognized gift for computer game programming. The children’s problems are linked somehow to the fact that their birth mother walked out on Howard shortly after Sam was born; the theme of abandonment is threaded through the play.     

One night Sue brings home Oz, whom she’s picked up somewhere, and Howard, thinking he’s being protective of his daughter, who couldn’t care less, prepares to beat Oz with a baseball bat when he emerges from the bathroom; he’s gone in there at Sue’s invitation while she’s bathing, although he politely keeps his eyes turned away. Oz turns out to be anything but a threat and instead becomes the catalyst in the family’s evolution. Sam, while remaining a psychological case study, moves on to college, while Sue gets pregnant by Oz, whom she seduces in a bizarre scene where she gets him to demonstrate tongue movements, but becomes even more alienated from the family after she’s had the baby. Oz becomes a member of the family while his wife goes out partying, leaving the baby in his care. And through it all, Howard, doing his best to stay positive despite his own and everyone else’s failings, finds both anguish and resolution amidst the chaos.

The play’s many scenes move swiftly under Mr. Hoffman’s deft direction, but the characters generally speak in low (often, for my ears, too low) conversational tones (projection has become a non sequitur in much local stage acting). Time is often expressed by overlapping scenes, so that, for example, Sue will walk off stage pregnant in one scene and walk on casually in the next without her belly.

All the actors do excellent work, but Mr. DeMunn is especially notable as the determinedly optimistic Howard, who tries to ignore his family issues by tinkering with old lamps, at which he earns a few extra dollars, as if fixing them could somehow turn his darkness into light.  

Almost as forgettable as the play is its dull title. The characters may be innocuous but does the title of the play have to be as well? Why would anyone call a play . . . wait, what was it again?