The marital problems of an upper-middle-class couple (with particular focus on the vague discontent of an adulterous wife) are the stuff of soap opera. Without unique or vivid characters, meaningful social commentary, or rich and textured dialogue, chances are the play won’t be involving. Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros' Big Sky, directed by John Rando at the Geffen Playhouse through July 17, unhappily falls within these negative parameters. Although it perks up in Act 2, with a strong performance by Jon Tenney as a wounded alpha male lashing out at his loved ones, the story is, for the most part, bland and forgettable.
It takes place in an upscale condo (a handsome scenic design by Derek McLane) at a ski resort in Colorado where Jack (Tenney) has gone to meet with a wealthy Wall Street operative, hoping to secure a position with his company after losing another job in finance a few months earlier. He’s brought with him his wife Jen (Jennifer Westfeldt), 17-year-old daughter Tessa (Emily Robinson) and Jen’s longtime gay friend Jonathan (Arnie Burton) whose struggling enterprise — the manufacture of designer pillows — Jack has been funding.
Straight off we learn that Jen is having an affair — so serious (to her mind, anyway) that she plans to leave Jack, who initially has no idea that she’s strayed and is puzzled by her chilly response to his amorous inclinations, still sparking after 18 years of marriage. Act 1 addresses this disconnect between them, discovered (much to his dismay) by Jonathan after he accidentally spots a text from Jen’s lover. We also learn that the spirited Tessa has a secret boyfriend, the half-Native American, half-Latino elevator operator in the building where the family resides in Manhattan. (It’s telling that in the world of the play, the young man’s employment status makes him entirely unacceptable.)
Act 2 heats up after Tessa is involved in an auto accident, with consequences that threaten Jack’s future prospects. At this point, it’s almost possible to become engaged in the plot, mainly because Tenney brings such authenticity to the beleaguered Jack, while Robinson invests Tessa with sufficient individuality to transcend what might have come off as a generically rebellious teen. Burton, whose character is mostly a plot device, is also successful in making Jonathan a developed and sympathetic presence.
Throughout, however, Westfeldt’s shallow portrayal of a whiny self-absorbed person, convinced that she’s somehow been wronged despite a lifetime of privilege, is profoundly off-putting, and underscores everything that’s wrong with this fusty and not terribly funny comedy.
The Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Westwood; through July 17. (310) 208-5454, geffenpayhouse.org.
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