Remember the TV show The Love Boat? A random assortment of actors and comedians, current and classic, were assembled on a weekly basis to perform in a series of disconnected stories of romance and heartbreak, loosely tied together by the notion that they all take place on the same cruise liner, with the same crew people weaving in and out. The characters and situations were quickly sketched in because the whole thing had to be crammed into an hour (well, 45 minutes once you cut the commercials out). And of course, there was Charo.
Well, that’s what Jennifer Maisel’s play The Last Seder, currently getting its area premiere at Park Square Theatre, feels like. It is stuffed to bursting with great local actors (11 of them!), directed by Peter Moore. Instead of a cruise ship, there is a beautiful, massive set (two levels, with five bedrooms and a bathroom on the second level alone) designed by Michael Hoover. In addition to the 11 characters, there are no fewer than five plotlines being juggled on the way to the big eponymous family holiday ceremony. And the whole thing is only 90 minutes long. There is, to put it mildly, way too much going on here.
The fault does not lie with the production. Everyone struggles mightily to infuse life into the flimsy material they’re given to work with. Much as it pains me, I have to lay the blame at the feet of the playwright for this one. Any one of the five plots would have been enough to fill an entire full-length evening of theater, if it were adequately explored. Squashing them all up against each other like this means no one character or plot gets any room to breathe, or grow. The characters and story points are the sketchiest of outlines, being shifted around by the author at her convenience like chess pieces on a game board. The only reason any of these individuals come off as fully realized human beings at all is that the acting talent here is so good. They don’t have a lot to work with, but they work it for all it’s worth.
|the last seder, presented at park square theatre through october 3. for tickets ($20) and information, see parksquaretheatre.org.|
Marvin Price (Gabriele Angieri) is rapidly losing the contents of his memory to Alzheimer’s disease. Unable to care for Marvin by herself anymore, his wife Lily (Karen Landry) is preparing for Marvin’s transition into an assisted living facility. In order to afford this, she must sell the family home. Their four grown daughters are returning for one last family seder before the house is sold. But Lily and Harold Freeman (Allen Hamilton), the widower next door, have a secret of their own.
Oldest daughter Julia (Shannon Jankowski) is a pregnant lesbian partnered with Jane (Virginia S. Burke). Both of them are therapists. (Yup, that’s all the character development they get.)
Daughter Claire (Mo Perry) tends to make plans, and change plans, without consulting the people closest to her who are most directly affected. This is understandably a cause of friction, whether she’s postponing wedding (or baby) plans with her long-suffering, long-term boyfriend Jon (E.J. Subkoviak), or plotting to sell off the contents of the family home while everyone else is trying to pack.
Daughter Michelle (Maggie Chestovich) is so tired of being quizzed by her aunt at family gatherings about when she’s going to get married that she hijacks a nice young fellow named Kent (John Egan) at the train station to act as her fake boyfriend for the occasion. Michelle is crestfallen to learn there will be no extended family at this last seder after all. But Kent is surprisingly reluctant to leave, especially since Marvin thinks he recognizes Kent as an old friend, even though the man doesn’t recognize his own daughters (this includes probably the most adorable and awkward moment of nudity I’ve seen in a while).
Daughter Angel (Ali Rose Dachis) can’t seem to stay in one place, or make her relationship with on-again, off-again boyfriend Luke (Andre Samples) work. They reunite for a little more “on-again” in the midst of all the other family lunacy. (Yup, that’s all the character development they get.)
While Angel and Luke, and the pregnant lesbians, are the slightest in terms of plot and character development, Claire, Michelle and Lily’s stories all have rich potential to be expanded and deepened into something truly moving, given room. The problem is there’s no room here. The sheer number of balls in the air in this play precludes any one thing from really hitting home with any genuine force. Because we’ve all seen Alzheimer’s stories, and family holiday stories, and countless romantic comedies, the audience comes in pre-programmed to accept certain shortcuts. It’s almost a Pavlovian response: manufactured sentimental moment, “Awwww.” The author relentlessly plays on these, shorthanding nearly everyone and everything to the point that it’s all just a shadow of an actual story. I’m even tempted to call it lazy.
The best example of how the play lets the production down is when it hunkers down for the seder ceremony itself. Claire has so repeatedly undercut and shut out Jon, making decisions time and again about their life together with no thought to how he might feel, that the poor guy is at a loss for what to do. Jon loves Claire deeply and unconditionally, and Subkoviak does such fine work that his laconic persona fits into the whole crazy family like a comfortable shoe. But Claire, family crisis or no, has crossed a line. So when time comes in the seder ceremony to make note of their singular joy in life, the one thing that makes their life meaningful, even if they had nothing else, Jon takes a stand. Other family members single out their partner in life. Jon says, “If I only had my career, and nothing else, that would be enough.” It’s a cold and well-deserved rebuke to Claire’s dismissiveness of Jon. But because we have a half dozen other characters to grind through in this part of the ceremony, Jon’s moment comes and goes, unremarked. Claire and Jon could be their own play, but there just isn’t time for them in The Last Seder. Pick a character, any character, they get short shrift. And it’s a shame.
Family traditions are a perfect breeding ground for hilarious comedy and genuine, deeply moving drama. The cast assembled here could do anything. It’s a pity the script for The Last Seder didn’t give them raw material commensurate with their talents, or the audience space to enjoy them.