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The elements couldn’t be more familiar: Tired salesman chasing the American Dream. Long-suffering wife. Two sons creeped out by their father. Money problems. Disappointment. Bar mitzvah. Failure.
“I know,” marvels younger son Mitchell, gaping at the Source Theatre audience with one of those “Whoa!” looks only a really wide-eyed 11-year-old can muster. “I couldn’t believe it either….There are all these similarities.”
Welcome to The Loman Family Picnic, Donald Margulies’ acid, explosively funny take on the American family in extremis. As the title suggests, the author sees all the same midcentury familial stresspoints Arthur Miller did, he just sees them refracted through ’60s sitcom sensibilities rather than postwar disenchantment. His salesman, Herbie (Terence Aselford), would love to be a Robert Young sort of father if he weren’t just too bone-tired to Know Best. Devoted wife Doris (Paula Gruskiewicz) sits at home wearing curlers and her mud-spattered, 18-year-old wedding gown (over her nightgown) at 3 in the afternoon, muttering “I love my life,” with as much sit-mom bonhomie as she can manage. She also makes tuna plates, halloween costumes, and bar mitzvah arrangements (“I asked for mustard tablecloths peeking through lace….Mustard’s masculine for my Stewie”).
In fact, for a moment or two, you sense that if the kids were named Wally and the Beav rather than Stewie and Mitchell, and if they lived behind a white picket fence rather than halfway up a Brooklyn high-rise, their life would be as pristine as their plastic-covered couch. Then, something overinsistent about Doris’ reassuring chatter (“I’m very lucky, knock on Formica”) cues doubts that start sprouting subdoubts. Every third sentence seems to allude to some triumph or other over human nature (“Your father is not the least bit threatened by you or your brother”), and all that triumphing suggests serious turmoil.
Before long, it’s clear that family members spend as much time escaping their lives as living them. Stewie (Daniel Eichner) dreams of the electric guitar his bar mitzvah money will buy; Mom communes with long-deceased Aunt Marsha (Maia de Santi) who pops from the hi-fi to kibitz about dress styles; and Mitchell (Mike Barry) is writing a musical-comedy version of Death of a Salesman (called Willy! and brought giddily to life in Act 2) hoping to exorcise his family’s demons by proxy. Only Dad is living in the real world, and he’s miserable.
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On the evidence presented in The Loman Family Picnic, Margulies appears to be an almost criminally gifted dramatist with a flair for turning stress, downward mobility, and frustration into fuel for comedy. He’s also as good at crafting lyrics as gags, so when the evening reaches full throttle in Willy!—“Attention, Attention, you must pay attention” sings Doris to a torchy melody by Broadway’s David Shire—it roars along pretty hilariously. Sometimes the author seems a trifle overfond of technique. His second act has so many audience asides, dream sequences, tap dances in booted pajamas, and absurdist tricks (like restarting a scene over and over), that it threatens to become a staged dissertation on theatrical gimmickry. Fortunately, the flash supports some genuinely wrenching observations about marriage.
Director (and Washington City Paper opera critic) Joe Banno’s staging flags only once, when he begins the second act in the lobby during intermission. The idea is cute enough—soft-drink sipping theatergoers are momentarily transformed into guests at Stewie’s bar mitzvah—but what is, at heart, a pretty dark exploration of family shouldn’t be brought down to the level of Bernie’s Bar Mitzvah, even briefly. Luckily, the evening’s most ferocious scene—a searching “what do I have?…what’s mine?” explosion from Dad—refocuses the production immediately thereafter. Then Mitchell’s musical comedy takes over.
Banno is working with a terrific cast, from de Santi’s hard-boiled ’40s floozie to two of the most accomplished juveniles seen hereabouts in ages. Eichner was a sharp, funny Joey in Studio’s Conversations With My Father last season, so it’s not surprising that he should also be a sharp, funny Stewie. But Barry, who makes his professional debut as Mitchell, is a real find— a triple threat with loads of stage presence, the timing of a seasoned stand-up comic, and a crisp, clear singing voice.
They’re so good you’d think they would upstage their stage parents, but Doris’ ability to pick the gauch-est possible phrase to describe her bliss in high-rise hell (“Chanukah looks like Kristallnacht here”) seems to come naturally to Gruskiewicz, who presides over the evening with world-weary, aging-Jewish-princess charm. And while Aselford seems as bland as his milquetoast salesman at first, he makes a seriously harrowing transition in the second act. He’s also a fine, rubber-limbed dancer.
Paul Lusaka’s costumes are a riot, from the powder-blue tuxes he’s ordered up for Stewie’s big day to Marsha’s ’40s pillbox hat and the brilliantly in-character, quilted, bathrobelike blouse with which he’s topped Doris’ musical-comedy gown. As propmeister, he’s also responsible for such incidental sight gags as a green-tinged Bride-of-Frankenstein wig and the plastic fruit on which Marsha almost breaks a tooth. Tony Cisek’s setting, which stacks Jewish family portraits to the rafters to represent Brooklyn’s high-rises, and William A. Price III’s lighting scheme, which finds a whole new vocabulary when the characters burst into song, are sure assets. The show is only scheduled through the beginning of June, but if word gets around, it could easily hang in at Source until the company’s July festival. Here’s hoping.
Picture a desolate, dreary Peruvian bar run by a possibly lesbian bartender named Chunga and animated by the puerile conversation of four macho, card-playing jerks. The talk halts abruptly at the mention of a fetching young innocent named Meche, who apparently arrived one night on the arm of a pimp, got offered to the proprietress as payment for a gambling debt, and then disappeared into an upstairs bedroom, never to be seen again. She has fueled the men’s fantasies ever since.
That’s the sum and substance of Mario Vargas Llosa’s La Chunga, a peculiarly diffuse 1986 opus that seems, at Gala Hispanic Theatre, to hail from some earlier century…say, the 16th, when men were men, and women were chattel. Vargas Llosa’s social politics have been growing progressively more reactionary since his left-wing 1963 novel Time of the Hero brought him to international attention, but awareness of his rightward drift doesn’t quite prepare you for La Chunga’s almost antediluvian take on gender issues.
Surely, you mutter to yourself, the author must be engaging in satire when he portrays women exclusively as man-haters or simpering idiots. Surely a playwright who spends Act 1 setting the sexes in opposition and Act 2 exploring infantile male fantasies that will keep them that way must have written an Act 3…right? After all, “chunga” means “joke” in Spanish. (Of course, it also means “a cranelike bird,” so it’s probably not wise to bet the bank on the dictionary.) Finally, it dawns: Vargas Llosa has just happened upon a simple-minded theatrical device—each card-playing blowhard visualizes Meche’s night in Chunga’s bedroom—and reaped simple-minded results.
Thus, quasi-virginal José (Arturo Martinez) pictures an equally inexperienced Meche being sexually enslaved by Chunga. Lituma (Javier Angel), who has always paid for sex, imagines that Chunga has actually procured Meche for him, and that she’s as pliant and experienced as any of his whores. Child-molester Mono (Javier Teran) visualizes a cheesy S&M ménage à trois in which the women punish him for his desires. And Josefino (Hugo Medrano), the vicious pimp who introduced Meche to the others, pictures himself sodomizing Chunga to punish her for not going along with his schemes to turn her bar into a brothel.
While the play is scattered enough that I’m not sure I entirely understand what Vargas Llosa is driving at—his program-note blather about “the totality of human experience” proves singularly unhelpful—everything I do understand strikes me as pretty creepy. So much so that Abel López’s muddy staging almost counts as a virtue when it renders a goodly portion of the second act more confusing than obnoxious.
Except for having lighting designer Ayun Fedorcha splash the stage with a greenish effect at the beginning of each dream sequence, López doesn’t bother distinguishing the men’s fantasies from their supposedly true-to-life scenes. (Neither does Vargas Llosa, but that’s what directors are for.) As a result, the shifts in tone accompanying each card-player’s trek to Chunga’s bedroom—built by designer Tony Cisek on a tilted, vertigo-inducing platform behind a scrim—are disconcerting. The lesbian bits get hotted-up in a way that had patrons giggling at the performance I attended. The prostitution fantasy is sentimentalized for all it’s worth. The S&M episode is played strictly for laughs. By the time Josefino rapes Chunga—a scene that should surely pack some kind of emotional punch—the evening has devolved into a series of increasingly annoying sketches.
All the Spanish-language performances seem adequate, though they don’t go very far toward humanizing characters who tend to come across as walking negative stereotypes. If Lorena Sabogal’s flirtatious Meche and Claudia Dammert’s severe Chunga get to show a bit more range than the men, that’s still not saying much, given the one-dimensionality of Vargas Llosa’s conception. The actors offering headset translation for English speakers are decently attuned to their onstage counterparts. The play, alas, loses something in the original.CP