Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
January 27, 2012
As Tolstoy put it, “ Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” So, family dysfunction looks different in every play, whether it’s a comedy, mystery or drama, whether it deals with inheritance battles, filial disconnection, or cold-blooded murder. And don’t these theatrical works always make YOUR family look a whole lot better?
Greed, class, entitlement and uncertainty drive the action in “Dividing the Estate,” the final creation of the esteemed late playwright Horton Foote. It’s all about, well, dividing the estate, a phrase that surfaces about 100 times in the comic drama. Set in Texas in 1987, in the midst of a financial downturn, the play introduces us to the disgruntled Gordons : the octogenarian matriarch, her three offspring and their children, and a trio of African American servants. As the Old South erodes, the family implodes.
In 2009, the piece was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play. Most of the cast remains the same in this Old Globe production, in which two of Foote’s children appear. And yet, there’s just no there there . The storyline is musty, the characters are two-dimensional and stereotypical. And at the end of the first act, after two deaths, it’s really hard to care what happens next. Michael Wilson’s staging feels static, and his cast of 13 both over- and underacts . Despite all the hype, the evening proved underwhelming.
Less high-profile but more satisfying theater experiences are available at our smaller companies.
Up in Vista, Moonlight Stage is offering a nimble production of the longest-running play in theater history: Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap,” still going strong in London’s West End after 60 years and 25,000 performances. Under the direction of Jason Heil , the cast is delightful, even if we don’t quite feel the claustrophobic terror of another impending murder in Monkswell Manor, a guest house where eight people, including a killer, are trapped during a blizzard. Turns out they’re not quite strangers, and there are some fraught family ties. The characterizations are the key here, and trying to figure out whodunit is a challenge and a treat. Audiences, as always, are sworn to secrecy. Great fun!
More deep and thought-provoking is Donald Margulies’ comic drama, “Brooklyn Boy,” having a fine outing at Scripps Ranch Theatre. The set may be intrusive, the young movie actor too earnest, but these are quibbles. Ruff Yeager helms a solid cast that persuasively conveys the story of a newly acclaimed writer who can’t seem to satisfy his competitive wife or his demeaning father. He may be a professional success, but he’s a familial failure. Perhaps the cast plays more for laughs than dramatic depth, but you’re free to do your own analysis.
Families present so much food for contemplation and introspection.
“The Mousetrap” runs through February 5 at Moonlight Stage Productions in Vista.
“Dividing the Estate” plays through February 12 in the Old Globe Theatre.
“Brooklyn Boy” continues through February 19 at Scripps Ranch Theatre, on the campus of Alliant University.
©2012 PAT LAUNER