Nothing like a funeral to bring a dysfunctional family together. And nothing like a will that doles out not only money but a secret as well to take that family’s togetherness and screw it all up.
Such is the premise behind Chicago playwright Steven Strafford’s darkly quirky family dynamic play, Small Jokes About Monsters. Workshopped last year as part of the Landing Theatre Company’s reading series, New American Voices, the show is getting its world premiere here in Houston and is just the second play Landing Theatre has ever produced from the reading series.
Original work in this city is hard to come by. Original work that was developed locally is even rarer. Original work that…well…works? We certainly keep our fingers crossed.
The first thing we notice upon entering the theater is that it looks nothing like we’ve seen in this space before. Or at least nothing like I’ve seen it look before. Rather than the straight, end-stage configuration we’re used to, we’re treated to a wonderfully conceived and attractive theater in the round setup.
Adding to our pleasure was what we were actually sitting around — a three-room Jersey Shore beach house, awash in hues of cream, pale gray and baby blue. Elegant but not too posh, the dining room, living area and elevated kitchen (courtesy of scenic designer Shelby Marie and director Clinton Hopper) exude the kind of calm serenity we know will be shattered fairly quickly.
After all, within five minutes of listening to Strafford’s banter and barb-driven script, we get that this is going to be one of those realism living room shows. A type of play (derided by some as an ossified genre) about upper-middle-class white folks who get together (usually in a living room), discover discomforting secrets about one or more of the group and crack witty joke after joke to counterpoint the seriousness of the plot.
Three adult brothers and their mother are the folks we meet in this show. John, the eldest (Jonathan Gonzalez), gay middle son Ryan (Joshua Kyle Hoppe), Derek, the youngest (Colin Brock), and Mom (Rachel Dickinson) have rented the beach house in order to attend the funeral of the boys’ father. A father whom none of the children were close to and a man whom Mom despises for leaving her years ago.
Utilizing the genre’s typical agile and waggish dialogue, Strafford cleverly establishes the boys’ personalities quickly for us with talk about three particular Japanese movie monsters. “There are three types of funny people in the world,” Ryan claims. “Godzillas, Mothras and Gameras.” Don’t worry if you don’t know those last two, Ryan goes on to explain. Godzillas demand that they are funny – this is Ryan, the sarcastically entertaining but needy one everyone takes care of. Well, everyone except John, who's fed up with screw-up Ryan’s drinking and drugging and whoring around. John, Ryan explains, is a Mothra, a silent but deadly kind of funny that waits for his move and then attacks. John certainly spends much of the play nursing a quiet chip and attacking whoever pisses him off at the time, but rarely is it aimed at sweet and considerate Derek, a Gamera, according to Ryan. Someone who doesn’t plan on being funny but then is. Usually by falling down.
Brock, Hoppe and Gonzalez all deliver rat-a-tat-tat-paced performances of brotherly resentment, teasing, provoking and at times closeness. The interactions may not be all that unique, but the actors more than sell the relationships and we can’t help laughing as they push each other’s buttons and smile when any comradery is shown.
But it’s Mom that we can’t take our eyes or ears off of, courtesy of Dickinson’s performance, which defies any pitfall of cliché. “She’s the Fox News of family gossip,” Ryan claims of her. What he doesn’t note is that her incessant barking comes with one of the best thickly nasal Jersey accents we could ask for. Donning form-fitting clothing and exposed bra straps, Dickinson plays Mom as a hilariously passive-aggressive, rough-around-the-edges woman, telling her sons how much she loves them one minute, then side-swiping them with a comical insult the next. This is a tacky tough cookie of a woman, with balls bigger than any of her sons. We’d hate her if we didn’t find her so damn funny. We’d find her cruel if her orders didn’t actually seem to come from a good place more often than not.
The order that sets the discomfort part of the play into motion comes when she forces the boys to open their father’s will to see what he’s left them. There is money involved, enough of it to matter. But instead of being allocated evenly to all his boys, the majority of it is given to just one of them without explanation. Another secret their father keeps from them, just like never revealing where he went when he was out on his benders.
Of course there is a trauma involved in the secret. Of course it’s of the most hideous kind. Or course it pits brother against brother against mother. And of course ultimately they must choose whether family ties can heal those wounds or not. And because this is a living room play, they do so keeping us laughing all the way, like some kind of Pavlovian jingle bells.
Despite the recognizable arc however, Strafford’s script does greatly amuse along the way thanks to some terrific bouts of writing and clever comedy that often loops throughout the play. Yes, those movie monsters factor nicely a couple times as does a very funny “that fucking guy” gag. Not to mention the ongoing antics of Mom that never gets old. Strafford also wisely layers up on the trauma he bestows on the boys, taking the climax from stock chestnut to something far more disturbingly complicated.
But the real success of the production must be credited to director Hopper, who allows his talented cast to populate the beach house naturally and without one moment of boring stagnation. Derek’s in the kitchen, Mom’s on the couch, Ryan is sitting at the table and John is pacing. Thanks to Hopper, it doesn’t matter where we look; there’s interesting character action to observe and it goes a long way toward making the story feel fresh. Additionally, Hopper makes a very brave choice not to overplay the telling of the family anguish. In fact he underplays it, which seems jarring at first, and perhaps a misstep, taking all the stakes out of the story. But wait it out, and we realize that the matter-of-factness is the stakes. It’s what makes the trauma so hard to wrestle with. For the characters and for us. This is an astutely perceptive piece of direction and it is rewarded. This is Hopper’s first time directing in approximately seven years. It’s good to see that time off hasn’t dulled his sensibilities.
On the one hand, it’s somewhat disappointing that a new work would rely on such a tired and overused genre to tell its story. The living room play isn’t old enough to be retro or cool again. It’s just done to death at present.
On the other hand, if you are going to do a living room play, Strafford has written a nifty enough one and Hopper brings it to excellent life. This is a cast obviously committed and in tune with their characters and each other, making the two acts fly by with great infectiousness.
If a final verdict need be passed, it should be directed positively toward Landing Theatre for being a company committed to exploring and nurturing new work. Regardless of what one may feel about the structure of Small Jokes About Monsters, it’s a play that has been given loving care and attention and a splendid world premiere. There can be nothing but joy and pride in that.
Small Jokes About Monsters continues through February 18 at The Landing Theatre Company, 1119 Providence. For information, call 562-502-7469 or visit landingtheatre.org. Pay what you can; suggested price is $25.