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.
The Groundlings have been successful with this formula (Sterling’s co-authored family comedy, Holiday Dinner, comes to mind), but they build their sketches into full-length plays by adding themes and emotional tonalities, not just by including more scenes. Olson‘s play simply lacks the storytelling payoffs to justify its length, although the basics are all here: With just a hint of darkness, or at least a little modulation of mood, he could have whittled this kitchen sinkcom into something sharper that poked more than our funny bones.
Still, Olson reveals a knowing eye and ear for the details of Caucasian family life on the suburban steppes: the tuna tango dip, the spiritual centrality to the male psyche of the local golf course, the siblings’ disastrously mixed signals. (The reluctance of Michael, a doctor, to examine his mother for signs of Alzheimer‘s, and Carl’s squeamishness in discussing his mother‘s possible sex life almost provide Family Gathering with a comic spine.)
Likewise, the cast acquits itself very well in this imploding milieu, reveling in the kind of you-betcha Minnesota accents that have been the rage in comedy sketches since Fargo. (At any moment you expect William Macy to burst in exclaiming, ”You’re darn tootin‘ we’ll get those serial numbers to you!“) Everyone in the ensemble creates vividly individual characters, with O‘Connor in particular emanating a roguish charm as a man whose unexamined life now consigns him to a painful nether existence. (Although, as Carl dryly points out, Lutherans have no purgatory.) Willson also stands out in the smaller role of a pot-bellied, backslapping lounger who would give up the country-club life — except that he has too many golf shirts.
Perhaps, in the end, Olson’s play needs a little more apocalypse and fewer golf jokes. The family may not be the cornerstone of civilization as some conservative ideologues claim, but it is the bedrock of theater. Without wishing to sound too didactic, we could say that, like the family, comedy is too serious a matter to be taken lightly.