Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - June 1, 2012

Dysfunctional fun

Family comedy sparks laughs and sympathetic cringing, but could pick up the pace

by Kevin Kirby

Dragon Productions wants us to believe that the Richard Dresser comedy "Wonderful World" is a play about the havoc that too much truth-telling can wreak on an otherwise placid extended family. The company's marketing blurb and the program notes from director Susannah Greenwood both focus on this idea.

Certainly there is an extended family: mild-mannered Max, a guidance counselor; older brother Barry, a motivational speaker; their hard-drinking mother, Lydia; Barry's wife, Patty, who runs a charity; and Max's girlfriend, Jennifer.

And there is unquestionably havoc. When Patty takes umbrage at a misunderstood dinner invitation, it results in a rift that threatens to destroy her marriage to Barry as well as Max and Jennifer's newly announced engagement. But as for the assertion that the havoc results from an overdose of honesty ... well ...

OK, sure, the truth hurts. But the family is dysfunctional because — quite simply — it is composed of deeply dysfunctional people.

Max (nicely played by Jason Arias) is utterly spineless. His desire to make everyone happy, all the time, allows misunderstandings to fester, and his repressed jealousy at his brother's success keeps him perennially miserable.

Jennifer (or "Poor Jennifer," as Max's family calls her) is a bit of a doormat herself. As played by Carlye Pollack, she is both a perfect and a terrible match for Max: We believe that their relationship is comfortable, but we also sense that their combined timidity may lead to disaster.

Barry, on the other hand, is a native slacker married to a martinet, a woman whose five-year-plan for her fixer-upper hubby has pushed him into a life for which he seems ill-suited and ill at ease. The same might be said of the casting of Kyle Wood as Barry. Wood can't seem to find a consistent through-line for his character; his performance hits notes of arrogance, cluelessness and bathos that sadly do not add up to a complex characterization. He does, however, have a flair for tossing off bizarre non sequiturs.

Shareen Merriam also provides some wonderful comic moments as Lydia, the passive-aggressive, emotionally remote matriarch.

And then there's Patty, played with toughness and nearly enough verve by ej Taylor. Patty is a force of nature ... and not one of those benign, life-nurturing forces like osmosis, but a force of pure destruction. Rigid, manipulative, quick to anger and maddeningly literal-minded, she wields the truth the way Freddy Krueger wields those metal claws. When she believes herself excluded from the dinner invite, she flies into a snit, issuing a written statement to demand an apology Naturally, the more everyone tries to accommodate Patty's behavior, the worse things get.

But truth, qua truth, is not the problem here. The problem is the cruel and/or callous application of the truth, the years of polite lying that preceded the truth, and the fact that many of the truths are actually secrets shared in confidence. This may not be an important distinction, but when a talented group of artists comes together to produce a generally solid show that doesn't quite "spark," one can't help but try to puzzle out what's gone wrong.

Let's be clear: Dragon's production offers plenty of laughs and more than a few squirmy moments of recognition. But the laughs should come thicker and faster. By treating Dresser's play as a cautionary tale against candor, Greenwood and her cast aim for a sort of Everyman realism that prevents them from fully exploring the absurd, even farcical aspects of the script. Rather than embracing the absurdity and letting the humor flow from the characters' life-or-death commitment to their own untenable positions, the actors are left mugging for laughs and relying on Dresser's sit-com rhythms to produce a punch line every few sentences. In short, they need to bump up the crazy — and the tempo — until this puppy boils.

There is one scene, in the second act, where they nearly get there. It's Thanksgiving, and the strained family is gathered at Lydia's house, where the walls are lined with a dozen or more out-of-sync clocks. While relating a story, Jennifer happens to make an owl noise, which is immediately challenged by Patty. Soon, the two of them are hooting at the tops of their lungs as they lean in on Max from both sides, demanding that he choose the better owl imitation. Pollack and Taylor both cut loose, and there is a moment of comic frisson as the bonds of reasonableness fall away. The show could use more of that.

Interestingly, set designer Neal Ormond also seems held back by a misplaced desire for realism. His set comprises a three-armed turnstile: three walls joined at a central pivot to create three shallow rooms, only one of which is visible at any time. At the end of each scene, the turnstile rotates to reveal a new locale. The unseen rooms can be re-dressed (with different wall hangings, etc.), allowing Patty's office, for instance, to reappear later as a hospital waiting room.

This might seem like a good way to cram nine locations onto Dragon's stage. But the turnstile leaves two-thirds of the stage off limits, leading to highly unnatural blocking as the actors cross and recross in their awkwardly shallow living spaces. Further, since the floor does not rotate along with the walls, the furniture must be carted about by actors in near darkness, eliminating any time savings.

To his credit, Ormond has built an attractive, finished-looking set with chair rails, proper drapery brackets, faux-textured painting, etc. But, in the end, the production might have been better served if he had given up on literal representation, scattered some multi-purpose furniture around an empty playing space, and given the cast room for some more expansive acting.

Finally, sound designer James Kasyan deserves a nod for his choice of scene-change music. He covers the shifts with familiar songs that also illuminate the play's themes. Billy Joel's "Honesty" makes an early appearance, but — lest we believe that that's all the show is about — so does John Lennon's "Mind Games."

Whatever moral you may take from the story, "Wonderful World" is a funny look at family dysfunction spinning out of control. Perfect or not, it's another worthwhile effort from Dragon Productions. And that's the truth.

What: "Wonderful World," a play presented by Dragon Productions

Where: Dragon Theatre, 535 Alma St., Palo Alto

When: Through June 17, Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2.

Cost: Tickets are $25 general, $20 for seniors and $16 for students.

Info: Go to dragonproductions.net or call 800-838-3006.

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