By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Family, we might like to wistfully think, a la Sartre, is other people. But then come the winter holidays. And Mother’s Day, Father‘s Day and all the other red-numbered days on the calendar that require reunions in the hated suburbs. That’s when many another rephrased aphorism pops to mind: ”Family is hell,“ ”Family is war by other means,“ ”Family is -- us.“ In the case of playwright Phil Olson‘s comedy A ”Nice“ Family Gathering, the red-numbered day is Thanksgiving and the family is a small Norwegian-American clan, living in Minnesota, whose patriarch died 10 months ago.
Family Gathering premiered last spring at the Group Repertory Theater; it’s moved to the Groundling Theater as a visiting production with the original director, Patrick Maloney, but with a new cast. The characters include the widowed Mom (Mindy Sterling), sons Carl and Michael (Matt Winston and Jim Wise, respectively), Michael‘s wife, Jill (Chase Winton), and daughter, Stacy (producer Mary Jo Smith). They’ve gathered at Mom‘s place, ostensibly to shore up her spirits, reminisce and enjoy the ceremonial feast on this biggest of family days.
What they really do, however, is revive long-percolating resentments and compare their financial and social standings while avoiding the obvious fact that Mom is losing her marbles -- a condition suggested by her inclusion of turkey dogs as the main holiday-dinner course. Their inability to discuss sensitive matters transforms the ”kids’“ homecoming into a three-ring denial circus. (About the only uncomfortable matter the family members will admit to is Dad‘s demise.) Our guide to this familial big top is Carl, an ironic 30-something who has drifted through a life of low-paying but amenable jobs that guarantee little more than a roof and three squares. He’s currently driving a Pillsbury delivery truck while flexing his journalism biceps writing a column for a tiny local weekly.
To the Beemer-driving, trophy-wifed Michael, Carl is pathetic -- almost as pathetic as spinster sister Stacy, an overweight sad sack who generally spends her time at the gathering in mope mode, ignored by everyone except sister-in-law Jill. What Michael and Stacy can‘t see is the ghost of their father (Joe O’Connor), who‘s been all too visible and audible to Carl ever since his funeral. While Dad enjoys needling his underachieving son, his main desire is to tell his widow, through Carl, how much he loved her in life. Dad, it seems, was one of those weak silent types who could never summon the voice for such an admission while he had the chance on Earth.
This is the story’s basic dynamic: Dad hectors and cajoles Carl throughout the play to channel his message of love to Mom. Carl resists him and pretends to be recording memos on his microcassette every time someone catches him speaking to what seems to be thin air. There are other complications, meantime: Michael and Jill‘s childless marriage is breaking up even as he hides from his wife a pending IRS disaster; the appearance of Dad’s affable but opportunistic buddy Jerry (Paul Willson), who may or may not have his sights on Mom and her savings; and morose Stacy, who‘s about to reveal a surprising solution to Mom’s longstanding desire to have a grandchild.
The dysfunctional family has, over the last two decades, firmly established itself as an entire industry within narrative comedy, on both our stages and our screens. Olson‘s play -- a gentle living-room farce about little people coping with big problems -- fits squarely between the best and the bottom of the genre. There are no lighting cues for mood tones here because no dark surprises emerge to thwart our expectations of punch lines and gags.
Despite its new venue and the cast inclusion of Groundling alumni and regulars Smith, Sterling, Winston, Winton and Wise (most of the original GRT ensemble members are listed in the program notes as understudies), it’s immediately apparent that the show is neither as funny nor as caustic as most full-blown Groundlings productions. Gags become repetitious; Mom too conveniently swings from scatterbrained non sequiturs (”Spam makes me laugh!“ she proclaims, apropos of nothing) to forensic clarity whenever Carl (and the script) requires an answer about his father and the family‘s finances. In fact, we’re never really sure how to view Mom: Does she really have Alzheimer‘s? If, as Carl speculates, she is simply suffering from depression over her husband’s passing, would this medically account for her chronic amnesia?
What really conspires against the show is Act 2 drift. American lives may not have second acts, but two-hour American comedies should. Instead, the evening‘s last half meanders from gag to by-now-familiar gag -- more goofy observations from Mom, more moments of Carl pretending to speak into his microcassette recorder whenever his arguments with Dad draw the others’ attention. Before long, Family Gathering looks and sounds like a skit that‘s been stretched into a full-length work, which probably describes half the comedies on local stages today. Nancy Lantis’ Electra . . . I Hate My Momma and Stepdaddy! (see review in Smaller Theaters listings), for example, retells Atrean myths through a Jerry Springer--type TV program. Its premise is funny for a few minutes, but the hourlong show is less a one-act than a one-note sketch that‘s been elongated far past its punch line.