Posted by: strugglesome | February 24, 2013

Father Knows Best: Theatre Reconstruction Ensemble’s Set In The Living Room Of A Small Town American Play

American theater of the 1940’s and 1950’s is not for the faint of heart. It’s just so genuine, so earnest in its emotional bluntness that it makes you almost embarrassed for it, like a dear relative who gets drunk at a family event and starts sobbing all over everyone and telling them how lovely they were as children. From the Puritanical restraint of the past burst forth a theater that insisted on discussing things, uncovering secrets, dealing opening and honestly with feelings, especially in the face of post-war return-to-normalcy-everything-is-fine-now America. These plays, these writers, were necessary, significant and vital to our communal understanding of the emotional journey of American theater. But the reality is, we are so inundated with these writers, so desperately proud of our mild and minimal contribution to global theater, that we idolize them to the point of deification, without actually evaluating what about these plays is continually relevant or useful to us.

Of course we all know these names, Miller, Williams, O’Neill, a club of white men with axes to grind against their fathers and odd notions of motherhood and femininity. These men have defined our standards for Realism in American theater, in fact, they have dictated the majority of the so-called rules of American theater for the last half a century. So what does a company curious about these conventions but also desperate to deconstruct them do? Do they create a fascinating piece of theater based on but not bound by these story tropes and characters? Well, maybe not all of them, but certainly that seems to have been Theatre Reconstruction Ensemble’s solution.

With Set in the Living Room of an American Play, this company, headed by artistic director John Kurzynowski, seeks to excavate the tropes and tribulations that recur in so many realistic dramas of 40’s American stagecraft, and rearrange these fractured ideas and identities into a new piece of theater. When the company was denied the rights to an unnamed play from this period, Kurzynowski and the company decided that the solution to this inexplicable rejection was to make their own brand new vintage work. With resident playwright Jaclyn Backhaus, members of the company and invited actors have created a rumination on the act of making theater, the act of making this kind of the theater, and the way this form both invites us into its home and alienates us as modern audience members.

Dancing around the many threads and through lines of the existing stories, the failed salesman, the business partners lying to each other, the football hero brother who has burnt out and seems to be fading away, the next door neighbors, the adulterous husband, the drunk wife, the neglected younger sister, the Italian immigrants threatening good old American values, this living room is filled to bursting with characters and caricatures. One would say it’s a kind of cocktail, but they didn’t become popular until the following decade. This is a piece that unpacks that desperate post-war anxiety that pervades all of the original source material, the concern about the second world war and the way the trauma of that event had fundamentally destroyed that sense of suburban safety, no matter how much society tried to pretend otherwise. And so on one hand you have the older generation, represented by the central parent characters, Marla (Anastasia Olowin) and Frank Lorimer (Nick Fesette), and their peers, Frank’s business partner Bernard Marshall (Harlan Alford) and their Catholic neighbor Florence del Franzia (Backhaus in a hilariously ominously melodramatic turn), each one consumed with concern and regret about their past choices. Then there are the bright young things, the Lorimer children Penny (Lauren Swan-Potras) and Patrick (Michael Barringer), the Gershwin kids (no relation) Ned (Nick Lehane) and Dotty (Sydney Matthews), Emily Vicks (Emily Marro), Patrick’s former sweetheart, and Florence’s nephew, Carlo (Patrick Scheid), all of whom express concern for the future and exhibit the growing pains of this liminal time in their lives. Rounding things out are the requisite outsider radicals, the college classmate of Patrick’s, Ollie O’Shannon (Andrew Butler) and Marla’s spitfire Aunt, Edna (Tina Shepard).

So there you have all the elements of an old-school American drama. Middle class morality? Check. Fathers and sons in conflict? Check. Elicit love affair and possible pregnancy, or to put it more authentically, a young girl “in trouble”? Check. Money issues? Check. A young woman besotted with a foreign stranger? Check (and as a side note, one does grow nostalgic for the days when an Italian immigrant was enough to add diversity to a play). But as familiar as all these elements are, placed together in a black box theater and played almost casually by the large and talented cast, they take on a more troubling aspect, peering into the aching anxiety at the heart of these plays and our current concern and dislocation from these dramas. Beginning in the format of a table reading, the actors take up their places next to sound designer Kate Marvin, who operates her delicate and evocative design from behind a macbook, and stage manager Nick Smerkanich, who reads all of the stage directions from his binder. Jonathan Cottle’s set is a simple one which accumulates a sofa, a rug and a chair over the course of the play, and Some actors drift around, sitting in the front row of the audience, while others sip their water and giggle over the out-fashioned names from their places at the table. Lehane tensely paces, correcting Fesette and acting as a sort of reading director, while everyone turns to Backhaus when she cuts a line.

It’s a rehearsal, a ghost of a performance for a ghostly play. But as the actors read they start to stand, half in and half out of this deliberately overwrought story, going through the motions, entering it here, mocking it there, a real-life metaphor illustrating how we now view plays like A View From The Bridge and All My Sons, with equal parts reverence, confusion and disdain. The dangers of the story are muted by the carefully crafted distance Kurynowski has created in this performance, and Backhaus’ text marries with the direction to give the audience a story that is gorgeously complex and deftly told. The actors move through the story like spectators themselves, moving somewhere in the land between stock characters and real people. In playing with the rituals of this fictive world, the things that are always done and the things that are just “not done”, and pointing out how absurd these habits look to our modern eyes, this piece is its most successful when it is its most consciously theatrical. When an actor can’t or refuses to do something described in a stage direction, for example, when Marro tries and fails to cry onstage, or when someone uses the actor’s name instead of the character’s name, these moments cut across the intentional schmaltz of Backhaus’ writing to unify the characters and the actors, to show us a world in which real people can relate to imaginary stock roles.

Though at times confusing, at times just a hair too long and passing from profound silence into static air, this piece is, nevertheless, a sharp, complex, funny and surprisingly profound look at theater, realism, and how we approach and communicate with these plays in 2013. As a writer Backhaus is witty and wise, and as an actress she is macabrely comic and neatly timed. With lines like “Emily was misunderstood in her circumstances” and “We are such a good family when we’re good”, she walks the line between satire and homage while paying tribute to both. In an over-all talented young cast, Fesette and Barringer are both excellent as a mutually disillusioned pair each furious and saddened by the death of their respective images of each other. Olowin’s Marla is fantastic, affected and physically fluttering but with an emotional center that is clear in the final tranquil moments of the piece. Matthews’ consistently campy Dotty is hilarious and a nice complement to Swan-Potras’ sweetly fawning Dotty. And in his role as Ned Gershwin Lehane is stellar, though it is less clear why he spends so much time onstage observing and not a part of the action.

At the top of the show a line strikes the cast as a bit odd, and they interrupt the reading to ask if the cost of a cab in the 40’s can be googled. In that moment lies the heart of this piece, that in confronting the source material, the real plays of that period, we are disconnected from it in the most practical of ways, and while we might relate to the emotional heart of a play like Moon for the Misbegotten, it’s world is lost to us. It’s like looking at an old photograph, our eyes go straight to the person, disregarding their unfamiliar clothing and outdated settings, trying to connect with the one thing we can be sure of, that no matter what living room they grew up in, they were a human, just like us. These characters, so familiar to us and also so fragmented, so far away from the circumstances of our own lives, so dislocated from the way we are now, something about them still fascinates us, still reaches through time to capture our interest. Theatre Reconstruction Ensemble is to be thanked for trying to figure out why.

Set in the Living Room of a Small Town American Play runs until the 9th of March. Tickets can be found here.

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