By Bill Marx
In the spirit of Passover’s four questions, I will ask: Why this play of all plays?
We All Fall Down by Lila Rose Kaplan. Directed by Melia Bensussen. Staged by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA, through February 16.
Is it a genre or a formula? Who knows? Or cares? The setup is depressingly the same, particularly on American stages, where the domestic dominates. Because it always comes down to family matters, an easy way to whip up a play is to bring relatives together (the sane and the eccentric) via some sort of life crisis — wedding, funeral, sickness, whatever — and then go through the dramedy motions. Some laughs, a few tears, one or two revelations, followed by reassurances at the wrap-up that blood bonds can weather any storm. Love it or hate it, family is the safest dramatic game in town, at least for older theatergoers.
Lila Rose Kaplan’s We All Fall Down, receiving its world premiere by way of the Huntington Theatre Company, clings to the standard format tightly for its 90-minute duration, though from the get-go its central conceit is somewhat unbelievable. It is Passover and a well-off secular intellectual Jewish family in Westchester has gathered for its first seder. Members of the clan act as if they are dealing with some sort of barely remembered, arcane ceremony. Wouldn’t they have been invited to some seders at friends over the years? Would it be that alien an experience?
Anyway, that is the premise for bringing the brood (and others) together: Linda (Eleanor Reissa) is the domineering matriarch, a somewhat inexplicably daffy (she throws her iPhone down the toilet at one point) workaholic family therapist who has written a best-selling book on parenting difficult children. We know she is gifted because Ellen DeGeneres wants her to be a guest on her TV show. Her daughters are contrasting studies in rebellion: Sammi (Liba Vaynberg) is a feminist educator who lives with her (non-Jewish) chef boyfriend on the West Coast and refuses to go to graduate school; Ariel (Dana Stern) is into yoga — nonstop. Saul (Stephen Schnetzer), the patriarch, is a historian who has left his teaching job, is drinking heavily, and has memory problems; his sister Nan (Phyllis Kay) is a left-winger who has no idea why the family has suddenly become devout. A spacey former neighbor Beverly (Sarah Newhouse) provides facile laughs about living alone and clueless in NYC. Filling out the guest list is Ester (Elle Borders), a graduate student who is also Linda’s loyal assistant, though handler might be a better description.
So what happens? You don’t know? Plenty of one-liners, inexplicable costume changes (Linda dresses up as Heidi in one scene and a Star Trek crew member in another), a mental health issue is confronted (though no one dares speak its name), long held secrets are revealed, surprising future plans announced, feuding sisters come together, Linda loosens up, Ester croons Hebrew, etc. Even Beverly is given her (predictable) moment of bluesy humanity. Sammi’s boyfriend, who is bringing the brisket, is stuck in traffic on the highway. None of this rises above sit-com level: Kaplan is not inside her characters but outside, pushing them around for the sake of amusement, of which there isn’t much. So intimations of darkness, particularly given Schnetzer’s wooden performance as Saul, are kicked aside with ease. And why are there no arguments about ideas or causes in a family of Jewish intellectuals? At every seder with brainy types I have ever been to there was political talk. Nada about Israel? Perhaps Kaplan wanted to make sure no one in the audience, no matter where they stand, will be offended?
All the characters are one-note, so the performers get into a wearying groove and stay there. Reissa never makes Linda’s dizzying contradictions logically plausible or particularly funny. Vaynberg and Stern are fine as her insecure daughters, and you can’t help but admire Phyllis Kay’s astringency — she is true to Nan’s refusal to be drawn into what’s going on around her. Sarah Newhouse does what she can with Beverly, a comic contrivance. Director Melia Bensussen never quite gets the rhythms right — farce, sit-com, melodrama, sentimental goo — it doesn’t coalesce.
In the spirit of Passover’s four questions, I will ask: Why this play of all plays? I occasionally chat with dramatists, including some who have been produced in the Boston area. They assure me there are beautiful new scripts around, thoughtful and well written. (Kaplan may have penned some of them.) Why aren’t they being produced? They are challenging, I am told, and the powers-that-be believe theatergoers do not want to be shaken up — they would rather be entertained and soothed. The HTC has ample talent, intelligence, and resources at its command to stage substantial work — to provide a healthy alternative to the commercial fare pumped out by the American Repertory Theater. But there is no interest in taking a risk. What else explains why we end up with fodder like We All Fall Down, its preordained kitsch climax genuflecting to the “magic” of ritual: the lights go down, Hebrew is heard, truths are spoken, problems are solved, misunderstandings cleared up, and a doorbell rings. Is it the boyfriend? Is it Elijah? It doesn’t matter — as long as one of them is bringing the brisket.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.