Review: 'A Family for All Occasions' is intense

AP News
Posted: May 13, 2013 5:10 PM
Review: 'A Family for All Occasions' is intense

NEW YORK (AP) — Even the most ordinary-seeming family can get hit by the butterfly effect, a concept in chaos theory where one small change can have huge consequences.

For the not-so-happy blue-collar family depicted in Bob Glaudini's new play, "A Family for All Occasions," their butterfly effect is set in motion by the arrival of an unlikely suitor for the oldest daughter.

Labryinth Theater Company is world-premiering a brief run of the intense, layered drama, directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman at the intimate Bank Street Theater.

Glaudini ("Jack Goes Boating") and the versatile Hoffman explore some disturbing effects of familial love, or lack of it, that quietly impact and wear down family members over the years. Gently comedic moments abound, but the general tone is serious, and there's an undercurrent of repressed anger that explodes in a most unlikely way.

The head of this family, retired electrician Howard, (an excellent, nuanced performance by Jeffrey DeMunn), is a reader and a lover of big-band music. Howard makes excuses for his disrespectful, spoiled, almost-adult children and tries to placate his cranky wife, May. "Stay on the sunny side," he hopefully wishes her each morning as she stomps un-sunnily off to work.

Deirdre O'Connell, somewhat restrained here, is brusque and fairly grim as May, Howard's unlikely second wife. She met and married him almost 20 years ago after his first wife abandoned the family. Their mother's departure has negatively affected both children and continues to mystify Howard. Given his pleasant, poetic and talkative nature, it's also a mystery how he and the inarticulate May have stayed together.

The whole family is generally uncommunicative with one another. Sam (Charlie Saxton, credibly wrapped in teenage self-absorption) is an overweight, lazy high-school graduate who believes he's an undiscovered computer genius.

His older sister, Sue, (Justine Lupe, appropriately world-weary and increasingly blank-stared) is an unemployed, promiscuous 21-year-old, with a sullen attitude and no plans in life except to party. Her character could have been more developed, as we've no real clue why she seems to hate May — and herself — quite so much.

When Sue's latest one-night stand, a man named Oz (brilliantly portrayed by William Jackson Harper), turns out to be a smart, decent and generous man, his involvement with the family gradually changes each of their lives.

The scenic design and staging are symbiotic. The beautifully detailed living-dining room, designed by David Meyer and atmospherically lit by Japhy Weideman, has disappearing walls that should hide the bathroom and Sue's upstairs bedroom. When the walls are disquietingly absent during personal matters, the uncomfortable situation reflects the general lack of privacy that any family in a small house must endure.

Symbolically, the family is never seen all together onstage. In the second act, when a couple of years telescope through nine often quick scenes, some characters pass through one another's presence like ghosts.

DeMunn's uncanny ability to wordlessly communicate Howard's inner reflections is most affecting when he's alone, tinkering with lamps, humming old songs and kind of breaking our hearts. "A Family for All Occasions" reflects Glaudini's gift at generating tension and surprise with the sometimes inevitable, yet surprisingly resilient aspects of human nature.