| Stage |

Your Family Sucks But This Play Is Pretty Good

The setup: Another play about a dysfunctional family -- they are legion -- comes to Houston, this one the world premiere of the first play by Abby Koenig, a Houston Press contributor, and structured around a game show which gives the play its title.

The execution: The unique stage is shaped like the figure eight, with the top circle housing several areas in the Taubin family home and the bottom circle being the television studio, and also a schoolyard when required; some scenes are also played at the intersection of the circles. This complexity serves well to avoid show-interrupting set changes, and the audience seating is wonderfully close to the stage. A pre-show warm-up invites the audience to participate in the game show, by which I mean intimidates them charmingly into participation.

I came to love the Taubin family and their dysfunctional ways. While I wouldn't want them at an intimate dinner soiree, they might well liven up a large cocktail party. Greg Dean is Dad, and his bottle of scotch seems crazy-glued to his hand. He is writing the Great American Novel, but has writer's block before the outline. Melanie Martin, one of Houston's most versatile actors, is Mom, and she is a compulsive shopper but stops short of food for the family.

Caroline Menefee plays daughter Annie, struggling valiantly to bring some order to the general chaos, and wrestling with the dawning recognition that she might be a lesbian. Reagan Lukefahr plays the blond daughter, Molly, bulimic and head-over-heels in love with Matt Hune's Ronnie Horowitz, Hebrew rock star complete with yarmulke. All these are important roles, brought to exciting life by brilliant actors.

Playwright Koenig has created vivid characters, and her cast has done them justice. Hune especially has nailed the role of Horowitz, with catlike swagger, supreme confidence and deadpan sincerity, and deserves to play him again in a spin-off play.

While the situation is familiar, the humor is refreshingly original, and the element of surprise important, but watch for Ashley Partridge cross the stage as Rita in a slow walk accompanied by music. Fourth-grader Nicole Mariano has several scenes as a neighbor, and has a strong stage presence, but could pull back the acting a bit. Ty Mahany as the game show's MC could have found more humor, and showed more bravura poise, and perhaps could have been costumed with more flash.

The comedy is directed by Kevin Jones, and co-directed by Ivy Castle, and they know their business, as my loud laughter documented. They and playwright Koenig have found a loving compassion for the foibles of mankind, and the characterizations are interesting, strong and sensitive. The weakest element is the game show itself, as the pace slows here (despite frenzied acting), the satire here is less sharp, and the incidents less witty. The script could definitely use some tightening, but I am grateful to Koenig for such a sterling debut as playwright, and especially grateful for the charming surprise twist at the end.

The Horse Head Theatre performs in War'hous Visual Studio, with an address on Main Street but actually entered through an alley -- I was glad I left an extra 20 minutes to find it on my first visit, and would advise the same precaution. While the ambience reeks of funky, in the best sense of that word, and the aura is that of amateur production, there is genuine magic created on the unique stage, and the strongly professional acting and striking direction make me look forward to future productions.

The verdict:

The family dysfunction may be familiar, but these members are original and hugely amusing, while maintaining their powerful individual humanity. Attendance is highly recommended, as a refreshing antidote to the tinsel glitter of the season.

Your Family Sucks continues through December 22, from Horse Head Theatre Company at War'hous Visual Studios, 4715 Main. For information or ticketing, call 646-942-6837 or contact horseheadtheatre.org.

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