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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Now Family Week is back under the auspices of Manhattan Class Company (MCC). According to the press notices the script has been updated. Besides an intriguing cast it also has Jonathan Demme, a well-known film director (Silence of the Lambs) making his stage directing debut. While I'll admit that I had my reservations as to whether Henley could really fix what struck me (as well as other critics) as a fatally flawed play. curiosity about seeing Demme's first outing as a stage director and any opportunity to see Kathleen Chalfant made a trip to MCC's home at the Lortel Theater imperative.
I wish I could report that all my reservations were unfounded. Family Week still provides little hope for an upbeat future for these people, at least as a family. Except for references to an internet start up business and a welcome 15-minute trimming, its hard to pinpoint any easily discernible major changes.
As staged by Demme, the nineteen bite-sized scenes somehow emphasize the overload of problems being tackled but never really deeply explored. Kathleen Chalfant, though always a pleasure to watch, doesn't seem quite comfortable in her role as the family matriarch. Still, if you're a Henley fan, you'll find her usual array of quirky character and recognize similarities to her Pulitzer winning play Crimes of the Heart in the act of violence used to kickstart gradually revealedl bits and pieces about the family's long standing problems.
The title, Family Week, refers to a program at an Arizona Rehabilitation Center repeatedly described as the country's best. Claire (Rosemarie DeWitt who starred in director Demme's Rachel Getting Married is at home in her complex character) has been sent there by her back home therapist to cope with the tragedy of her teen-aged son Daniel's murder. (This is not a spoiler! It's discussed early on in the play. The play's surprises are more deeply embedded in various interchanges). To help Claire recover and return home, her mother Lena (Chalfant), sister Rickey (Quincy Tyler Bernstine, the play's liveliest presence), and 13-year-old daughter Kay (Sami Gayle who's playing this a bit too much as if she were still Baby June in Gypsy) have come to participate in the Family Week program.
Not surprisingly, the cracks in the family relationships go back long before the tragic murder. While there's evidence of Ms. Henley's bent towards quirky humor, especially in Bernstine's Rickey, this is hardly a comedy, even when that genre is modified by "bitterly dark " — unless you think growing up with an alcoholic mother, spousal and parental abuse and a murdered family member are subjects for laughter.
The center's location in an unnamed desert is an apt symbol for the four central characters' being stranded in lives filled with unhappiness that's rooted in equal parts circumstance and longstanding patterns of dysfunction. Derek McLane has created a handsome functional set with its large upstage windows through which we can watch the landscape that evocatively lit by Kenneth Posner. However, the constant shift from one scene to another, with actors moving on and off stage and also moving the props around becomes tiresome and distracting.
As Ms. Henley moves us through the seven days of the title event she has Claire, Lena, Rickey and Kay act as one of the Center's counselors — a nice touch symbolizing that ultimately we must all be our own therapists. Unfortunately all the trendy exercises that are part of the Pastures Recovery Center's methodology aren't any more fun to watch as they are to play. For me they brought to mind another small cast play by a less well known writer and director and without any high drama like a murder: Circle Mirror Transformation (review) written by Annie Baker and directed by Sam Gold. While I thought that play's exercises (part of an acting class at a small town community center) went on a bit too long, they did amusingly, touchingly and organically reveal each character's personal drama. Somehow I found Baker's ordinary people and their small dramas more engaging and memorable than those in Henley's more volatile family saga.
Incidentally, the Family Week program also lists two other actors, Daisey J. Collier as Jessica and Paul T. Ridgeley as Jim. The former is another sister who has long ago distanced herself from the family; the latter is Claire's husband and Kay's dad, a high powered lawyer who makes Claire's stay at this expensive retreat economically viable . Both are no-shows and thus only present as voices on the other end of a phone line.