Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Family of Mann"

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note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Larry Stark

"The Family of Mann"

by Theresa Rebeck
Directed by Nora Hussey

Set Design by Ken Loewit
Lighting Design by Marc Olivere
Costume Design by Katherine Hall
Stage Manager Rebecca McBee

Ed/Dave..................Stephen Cooper
Bill.......................Derry Woodhouse
Belinda/Sissy..................Alicia Kahn
Clara.....................Sara-Ann Semedo
Ren/Buddy...................Derek Nelson
Sally/Ginny..........Bonnie Lee Whang
Steve/Uncle Willy.....Douglas Rainey

The great news is that Nora Hussey, who has been doggedly building an outstanding core company for her Wellesley Summer Theatre, has brought this solidly experienced crew into Boston to display their excellence. The good news is that Theresa Rebeck's scintillating send-up of the backbiting group-writing system of making television sit-coms has a compelling second act that is a perfect vehicle for this company's strengths. The not so good news is that much of the first act is shallow and silly in building those very characters that make the second act sing. Billed as the New England premiere of a play that had its world premiere in 1994, the script badly needs a re-write that could save all it's many wonderful details.

But first the good news.

The focus of the play stays on the group's new writer (Alicia Kahn) --- an ex creative writing teacher amazed not only by her huge salary but by the opportunity to say something serious to millions of t-v viewers every week. She's first encouraged then squelched by the show's moody, quirky producer (Stephen Cooper), an energetic autocrat wielding total power in his little "family". As the pressure of marathon writing/editing/rewriting sessions sharpens tensions the tyro and a more experienced writer (Derek Nelson) begin a mutually supportive affair eventually ripped apart by differing ambitions. The other writers --- Bonnie Lee Whang's subtly selfish schemer and Douglas Rainey's boorish bottom-line player --- can see the producer threatened by this new writer's talent, but they also know where the muscle is in this "Family of Mann" which is their show's ironic title. Derry Woodhouse as the show's director is an almost outside chorus cheering and chivvying the group.

Throughout, the company handles the breezy, with-it, upscale-yuppie dialogue with a realistic surface glitter, while maintaining a realistic depth to characters that frequently explode at one another over both the trivial and the serious. As the play progresses, and the story and the writing more and more match the cast's superb playing, the mask of comedy drops away and the lacerations of ego-clashings draw real blood.

It's in the formative first half of act one that playwright Rebeck fails this cast. She has the writers all double as the characters in the sit-com itself (a superb idea), and intends to contrast the vapidity of the show they're writing with the deadly seriousness of the writers. But this playwright, who has won an Edgar and a Peabody, is great with irony but unfunny with straight comedy. It's painful to watch the actors struggle with scenes and lines --- not only in the necessarily shallow bits from the show, but the earliest meetings of its writers --- that get no laughs because they must be played for comedy but are ham-handedly flat. These empty stretches contrast sharply with a crackle of genuinely ironic wit that rattles through even the most serious of the later scenes.

Late in the play all the lip-service to imagination as the wellspring of true reality is brought eloquently alive when the taken for granted and insulted gofer and maid-of-all-work (Sara-Ann Semedo) sprouts real wings and admits she's an angel, even if only our heroine can see them. This sincere bit of pointed fantasy fits into Rebeck's play infinitely more comfortably than the "arm up his asshole" jock-jokes that fall so offensively flat earlier on.

Theresa Rebeck has local roots and even spent a little time with Playwrights' Platform here in Boston, before wending west to write for "L.A.Law" and to win three writing awards (including that Peabody) on "NYPD Blue" --- as well as, no doubt, soaking up background for "The Family of Mann". Would her fellow Platform playwrights think twice before suggesting edits or re-writes to such an honored, successful writer? Would such an honored, successful writer listen if they did?

Is a puzzlement!


"The Family of Mann" (til 10 February)
949 Commonwealth Avenue, BOSTON
(781) 283-2029

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