BOTTOM LINE: Like boiled skinless chicken and steamed vegetables, it's not a bad meal but it's also not terribly interesting.
Experts say that having dinner together as a family is part of a healthy lifestyle. Half a century ago it was the norm, nowadays the idea is an endangered species. The Leave It To Beaver family is now long gone and the counterculture revolution of the 60s has made way for the technological revolution of the new millennium. How has that changed us as a people and our roles within our family? This is the question that is posed by playwright Michele Willens in her new play Family Dinner.
The show opens on a brightly designed, almost cartoon-like set of the 1960s living room and kitchen of the Wells family in Santa Monica, California. Mother, Jane (Nancy Nagrant), is delightfully poking about the kitchen in petticoat and apron. We meet father, Howard (William Broderick), a suit-wearing nine-to-fiver, and the children Maggie (Lily Corvo), Alex (Rick Desloge), and Johnny (Marshall Pailet*) as they all sit down for dinner. It is revealed that even though this family dines together every night, like every good family should, they all have their own dark secrets. The father is an alcoholic, the mother can do more than cook and freeze a meal, the good son is a failure, the underachiever is angry, and the daughter is treading dangerous waters with her 7th grade teacher, Mr. Karadenas (John Haggerty).
Though Willens touches on alcoholism, favoritism, and sexual and verbal abuse, she never scratches below the surface. In a very presentational way, the characters are more spoof-like than real. Perhaps director Jamibeth Margolis is making a comment on the falsity of the picture perfect family of the early Sixties. Act II is slightly less spoof-like.
Act II, reveals the family forty years later in the New York City apartment of Maggie, (she is a mother now), on the afternoon of her daughter's high school graduation. Everyone is texting, plugged into their iPods, and glued to their Blackberries. (NYC must have been ahead of the national curve - I don't recall texting replacing a phone call quite yet, especially for teenagers, or Blackberries and iPods being the norm in 2002.) Maggie is secretly on the verge of divorce, apparently partly because she still has issues with the unfortunate incident in her childhood, the underachiever is successful in life but not in love, the good son is failing in both life and love, the mother is clueless (strange, since in the first act she shows signs that she is smarter than she lets on) and, conveniently, the father is dead. Ironically, despite the lack of face-to-face communication and lack of family dinners around the table, Maggie's kids turn out okay and choose to open up to their mother when it comes to the important issues.
Much like the central character in her play, Willens avoids talking about any difficult issues. Family Dinner has several interesting ideas but never really tackles any of them. The characters and their relationships are flat and Willens' comment on society is more of a passing observation than a strong message. The actors do their best but the script gives them little to work with. You might actually be better off staying at home and having dinner with your family.
(Family Dinner plays at the Beckett Theater on Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, through July 3, 2010. Performances are (with some exceptions) Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $18. For tickets, call 212.279.4200 or visit www.ticketcentral.com.)
*Note: The roles of Young Johnny and Mike Barton are played by Marshall Pailet from 6/17 - 6/26 and by Thomas McKiernan from 6/27 - 7/3.