Written by Beth Henley
Directed by Jonathan Demme
It's obvious why filmmaker Jonathan Demme chose Beth Henley's decade-old Family Week
for his first foray into live theater: it feels like a movie, so he doesn't have to travel too far out of his comfort zone. This new production, at the Lucille Lortel
(through May 23), where cinematic theater is unfortunately like a house specialty
, opens with a rock song as the characters "arrive" to the scene; presumably, using supertitles to project opening credits proved too costly in previews. Each scene lasts no more than a few minutes before the stage goes dark and the action hurries to another time and place—a sort of live "cut." Not only are such anti-theatrical devices inherently faulty, but the play's zippiness also proves its greatest dramaturgical fault: Family Week
never takes the time to develop or credibly denoue (though it ends with a rushed, possibly hallucinated resolution) the many frictions it inorganically introduces.
First and foremost among these is Claire, a conflict unto herself. Played by Rosemarie DeWitt (the first of Don Draper
's many mistresses), she's an unstable woman with a laundry list of diagnosed disorders, an inpatient at a desert treatment center, coping with "it"—really, "them," another laundry list, this one of problems: a murdered son, a strained marriage, an awful childhood. The play attempts to grapple with these (as well as quickly introduced and dropped intimations of incest!) in just over an hour. It's "family week" at the center, so some of Claire's family has come to visit—mom (The Last New Yorker
's Kathleen Chalfant), sis (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), and daughter (Sami Gayle)—which allows for the airing of past family grievances, confrontations lazily constructed as group therapy exercises—"the time you did this made me feel this"—that enable a whole lot of telling but very little showing.
Demme has depicted gaggles of gals before, in his wonderfully lived-in Rachel Getting Married
. But he never brings the performers together here into the kind of naturalized rapport he and the actors developed there. (You can see why opening night was delayed a week; unfortunately, it wasn't postponed long enough!) Aside from DeWitt, who played the titular Rachel in that ensemble masterwork, none of the actresses transcend the sitcom-ish, archetypal confines of their characters. Chalfant is the hectoring, know-it-all matriarch, perpetually questioning the staff's "credentials" (in case you don't recognize this right away as an evasive defense mechanism, a dream sequence spells it out later); Bernstine, the sassy sister (whose performance treads dangerously close to sassy sista) with a penchant for revealing clothes and a purse full of travel-size liquor bottles; Gayle, the bratty teenage daughter who wears her adolescent exasperation unambiguously, as a mask (brow scrunched, mouth agape).
Thank God for DeWitt, then: she plays her still-grieving mom as bossy and spoiled, in a medicated and therapeuted calm that cracks only twice, startlingly, spilling out as rage. Still, she's thorny, tightly wound, and cringes at being touched, even at the casual embrace of her daughter. In DeWitt's greatest moment, she recites a list of "primary emotions"—pain, shame, loneliness, anger, guilt and fear—and, without being showy, each word plainly possesses the feeling it describes. DeWitt transcends the conspicuous artificiality of the moment—its acting-exercise-ness—and makes it feel human. Unfortunately, Henley, Demme, Bernstine and Gayle, for their parts, too often fail to do the same. To borrow the play's therapy session motif: the time Jonathan Demme directed a play made me feel pain, shame, guilt, fear, loneliness, and, well, anger—at the fact that such a promising combination of talents never coalesced to produce a meaningful, enjoyable or even coherent night of theater.
(photo credit: Carol Rosegg)