Tuesday, June 22, 2010

This Family Dinner Is Only Mildly Appetizing

I'm not sure what it says about Michele Willens's new play, Family Dinner, that I left the theater not thinking about the story I had just seen, but wondering whether they had to pay for the rights to use two Beatles songs and several Bob Dylan and Beach Boys songs. If they did, how they could afford it?

Family Dinner is playing at The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row through July 3. The first act takes place in Santa Monica in 1963 at the home of the Wells family. Jane (Nancy Nagrant) is the submissive housewife who gave up the violin for her family. Howard (Willaim Broderick) is the strict father who drinks too much. Alex (Rick Desloge) is the oldest--a poetic soul who longs for attention. Johnny (Marshall Pailet) is the baseball star, the golden child. Maggie (Lily Corvo) is the youngest, who idealizes Johnny and used to be one of the boys, but now would prefer to be Ann-Margret. These characters probably sound familiar because we've seen their kind before. But what is there to say about a family in 1963 that we haven't seen before in movies, TV shows, and plays?

The second act takes place in 2002 at the New York City home of Maggie (Nagran), now in a struggling marriage of her own and the mother of two. Her daughter's graduation brings about a reunion for the family (except for Howard, now dead). As the family tries to deal with the issues that have been repressed for so long, again, we feel that we've seen it before. Still, at two hours, the play moves along quickly.

A play with such stock characters requires a strong cast to transcend the material. Sadly, most members of the cast seemed uncomfortable in their roles. The grown-up versions of the children aren't similar enough in mannerisms to feel like the same characters. Only Corvo manages to have any real spark on the stage.

One positive about watching other families onstage is that it can make you appreciate your own family. And at least Family Dinner offers a pleasant soundtrack while doing so.

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