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The New Family On Stage: Broken And Transient

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It's hard to imagine Mary Tyrone's poignant curtain line, "We were so happy for a time," in a contemporary play, with its readily distracted characters, forever engaged in self-reinvention.

But like all the figures in "Long Day's Journey Into Night," Mary is awash in longing and regret, defined by misplaced opportunity and grief that doesn't have easy closure. "We were so happy for a time" is the purest evocation of an entrapped woman whose only solace is a morphine-induced memory of a better time, far removed and perhaps wholly imagined.

"Long Day's Journey" is the classic depiction of a tormented, claustrophobic family without exit, all of its members clinging to fantasies for the future and/or glories of the past. There's no escape for Mary or her husband, James, a hard-drinking has-been of an actor, or Jamie, an alcoholic who has succeeded in nothing, or the tubercular Edmund, with his unfulfilled artistic ambitions. The Tyrone family, destined to repeat its punishing, self-inflicted rituals, cannot even picture the possibility of an alternative. And, undoubtedly, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Dennehy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Robert Sean Leonard, who played the wretched Tyrones on Broadway last spring, luminously brought to life the darkest underbelly of the intact nuclear family.

Eugene O'Neill was a master of the genre; in somewhat different veins so were Ibsen and Williams. Consider the current Broadway incarnation of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," with its dying patriarch (Ned Beatty), a blustering, but not wholly malign, vulgarian cornered by familial vultures and gagging on their legendary "mendacity." Edward Albee is also a vivid portrayer of the arguably preserved family unit or couple who are doomed to each other for eternity, their shared demons and ghosts and miseries only serving, ironically enough, as the final adhesive.

The Child as Confidante

Over the last few theatre seasons, however, a new kind of family has entered the picture onstage (no doubt in an attempt to reflect the evolving family in the culture at large). Happy it isn't; indeed, it's as flawed as its earlier counterpart. Nonetheless, the shackles are not as relentless, the possibility of making a break from it is very real. Depending on viewpoint, that's good or, conversely, a grim development.

In William Nicholson's "The Retreat From Moscow," a play about marital strife, which opened on Broadway this fall, the retiring, bookish Edward (John Lithgow) jumps ship after 33 years of nuptial nonbliss. He has finally found someone preferable to hectoring wife Alice (Eileen Atkins), whom he can no longer endure. The exacting Alice, who lives by strict religious scruples, wallows in analyzing and dissecting their beleaguered marriage, and she is devastated by Edward's abandonment. He is guilt-ridden; both confide in their son as if he were a pal or therapist and he falls into the role with ease. Admittedly, he's an adult son. Still, the presentation marks a departure onstage in parent-children relationships.

Several years ago, playwright Peter Hedges—best known for his quirky novel and later film "What's Eating Gilbert Grape"—looked at a family constellation with almost no traditional boundaries, where parents and teenagers (not adult children) are on equal footing—if anything, the teenager has the upper hand. "Good as New," which played Off-Broadway at the MCC Theater, follows the decomposition of an educated, affluent Chicago family—parents and teenage daughter—after mom's face-lift. Appalled by what she views as a violation of who her mother is (i.e., an enlightened feminist), the daughter confronts mom, who, in turn, blurts out that she took the nip-and-tuck route because she's losing dad to another woman. Further shattered, the girl now engages in a face-off with her father who defends himself by saying mom has also "wandered."

Confession and revelation abound, none of it pretty. Perhaps the most notable element is the daughter's dead-center involvement in her parents' personal lives. Indeed, she exudes a tone of righteous entitlement throughout as she questions and interrogates them. But these people have never established demarcations between themselves and their daughter. Concepts of civility and amenity are alien. Privacy is nonexistent.

Hedges, whom Back Stage interviewed at the time, defended the teenager, Maggie, as the play's moral voice, despite the limitations of her simple-minded vision. "Maggie has not been indoctrinated into the grayness of life. So she brings her absolute values, her quest for an absolute fixable truth, into the arena and therein the explosion occurs," he said. "But no one dies, and my hope is that a newer, truer family dynamic will emerge. I'm not sure the marriage will survive. But at least they'll be talking more.

"If Maggie has committed any crime, it's that she totally believed in her parents and the happy family image they've presented," he continued. "Unlike most teenagers in plays, who are already disappointed in their families, Maggie begins from a place of total adoration. And the parents thrive on it. They've made her."

Who would dispute that? Indeed, that's precisely the point.

As embodied in "Good as New," the new family is virtually devoid of hierarchy; it's fractured and transient. In other instances, it's fully restructured. Hedges' film "Pieces of April," marking his directorial debut, and his earlier screen adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel "About a Boy," are further examples of the genre. Within the admittedly limited confines of television, there's "It's All Relative," "The Bernie Mac Show," and "Six Feet Under." Teleplays, films, and novels have been tackling the thorny reconstituted family for years.

In fact, recent popular fiction has also inspired several theatrical offerings that do the same. Consider last summer's "Cavedweller" and "Flesh and Blood," both based on best-selling novels—by Dorothy Allison and Michael Cunningham, respectively—and both dramatized Off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop as part of a series dubbed "Cradle and All: The Changing American Family."

With its feminist underpinnings, "Cavedweller" (adapted by Kate Moira Ryan) brings to the fore strong women fending for themselves and each other in the rural South. When a prodigal daughter, who has run off with a rock musician, returns (with a new child in tow) to claim the two daughters she dumped, the whole town rallies against her, including her own kids. In the end, everybody is reconciled (forgiveness and redemption are thematic motifs) and a new family is forged that includes friends, acquaintances, and even neighbors. These site-specific families, spawned by mutual need and, no doubt, intensely felt by their participants, are nonetheless fleeting. They will wither in a heartbeat.

Similarly, "Flesh and Blood," a three generational family saga, describes the improbable bonds that develop as a traditional family—a Greek immigrant patriarch, his American wife, and their three kids—falls apart in the wake of a changing world. Decades ago, novelists John Updike, Richard Yates, and Paula Fox were writing about failing families, alienated, unconnected, and noncommunicative or, perhaps contrary to received wisdom, communicating all too well. Cultural values were shifting and cracks in the traditional family were already visible. Still, the new family had not yet been born.

In adaptor Peter Gaitens' "Flesh and Blood," it has. The most interesting relationship emerges between the family's youngest progeny, Zoe, a wild child who abuses drugs and lives in the East Village, and a male transvestite, who becomes her protector (a surrogate sister) and later her straight-laced mother's closest confidante as well. This is not a friendship, but a self-sustaining family, whatever its duration. Like a family—and unlike a friendship—these characters, who seemingly have little in common short of their isolation, have somehow formed a cohesive bond.

Mom as Child

Yet a more savage depiction of the new family emerges in Polly Draper's "Getting Into Heaven," which played Off-Broadway (also last summer) at the Flea Theater. "Heaven" examined family life among the scrapings in the rock 'n' roll world, with its signature drugs and celebratory self-destruction. Specifically, it tells the story of Cat Venita (Draper), "a badass rock 'n' roller," her troubled lesbian relationship with the band's female drummer Rose, their emotionally disenfranchised son Danny (Rose's biological child), and the frustrated Jed (also a rock 'n' roller), who fathered Danny.

Draper acknowledged that some audiences—regardless of sexual orientation—might find the whole subject alien, if not distasteful. No matter. "I enjoy looking at families who, to the outside world, are outside of the norm," she said. "But what's universal in all families is their love for their children. 'Getting Into Heaven' could easily have been subtitled 'Sex, Drugs, Rock 'n' Roll, and Motherhood.' "

There's only one problem. Cat and Rose are so screwed up, they're virtually incapable of caring for Danny, who is killed as a result of an accident that could have been avoided, if the badass rock 'n' rollers were even semiconscious.

More recently, there was Joyce Carol Oates' "Bad Girls," Tristine Skyler's "The Moonlight Room," and Paula Vogel's "The Long Christmas Ride Home" (which just completed a run Off-Broadway at the Vineyard, and may reopen on Broadway). In "Ride Home," recounting a particularly wretched family Christmas get-together, the kids are portrayed not by young actors but by manipulated hand puppets, their faces masklike and frozen (see "Puppets Abound on Local Stages: A New Aesthetic?" in Back Stage, Nov. 21, 2003). Later in the play, the kids, now fully grown (and played by actors), are totally unlucky in love, and, in fact, unable to maintain connections with anybody. The homosexual son, who recklessly practices unsafe sex, is suicidal.

Vogel's commentary about the nature of childhood, early traumas, and the long psychic shadows they cast is evident. Still, these characters are (debatably) better off than their parents precisely because they are rootless and, by extension, free (within parameters, anyway). The parents, on the other hand—terrifically played by Randy Graff and Mark Blum—philandering and fated to permanent unhappiness, will never be free of each other, with their self-gluing hellish secrets. The play is observing the old and the new family and how the former has given rise to the latter.

Whatever the issues and failings of the new generation, Vogel said she is "optimistic about the new families my characters and their children will later create. They are free and, if nothing else, they're aware of alternatives to the way their parents lived." She added, "I'm hopeful about new and positive family patterns that we'll be seeing onstage as well as in the world. Restructured families don't have to be non-harmonious and ruptured."

Nowhere is the nonharmonious, ruptured family more brutally summoned than in Joyce Carol Oates' "Bad Girls," which recently closed Off-Broadway at the Directors Company. In this domestic heart of darkness, a family is helmed by a single mom—financially impoverished, lonely, and in search of a new mate. Meanwhile, her three teenager daughters competitively vie for mom's attention, jealous of and enraged by each new boyfriend mom brings around. Teetering on a psychic abyss, one of the daughters falsely accuses mom's newest boyfriend of sexually molesting her (the daughter) and the entire family shatters in the aftermath of the vicious lie. Two years later, the three girls and mom have gone their separate ways, losing all contact with each other. It rings true.

So too does "The Moonlight Room," a play by 32-year-old newcomer Tristine Skyler that considers rootless teenagers in unraveling families headed by single parents. In some ways, it's a descendant of Kenneth Lonergan's "This Is Our Youth," a play that looks at well-heeled Upper West Side college graduates, all aimless, all inebriated and/or drugged, all the offspring of divorce, remarriage—the stepfamily. (Bret Easton Ellis' novel "Less Than Zero" covers similar territory among the scions of Hollywood's elite.)

Skyler's "The Moonlight Room," a recent Off-Broadway, tells the story of two middle-class adolescents, Sal (Laura Breckenridge) and Josh (Brendan Sexton III), sitting in a hospital waiting room in the middle of the night while their friend undergoes a stomach pumping following a drug overdose. Throughout the ordeal, family members arrive, including the ravaged widowed father of the kid on drugs, who can't understand how his highly literate son got involved with a crowd that takes narcotics; Josh's stepbrother, an emotionally removed, pedantic prig; and Sal's disheveled mom, an unhappily divorced woman, still resentful of her ex-husband, whom she constantly badmouths to her daughter. Equally upsetting to Sal is the fact that mom neither tends to personal hygiene nor cleans the house. She is a nonfunctioning adult and Sal tells her so.

And that's another key. These new families are led—allegedly led—by adults who are as childlike and lost as their youngsters, if not more so.

"Sal is hurt," explained actress Laura Breckenridge, who plays Sal, the disturbed youngster. "She loves her mother, but feels that her mother could do better. She could clean the apartment and wash her hair. And she resents her mother always badmouthing her [Sal's] father. We decided that Sal looked like her father. Sal and her father are both dark, unlike Sal's mother, who is blonde. When she looks at me, she sees him. When she is badmouthing him, she is badmouthing me."

Most serious, mom does not know how to be a mom. Sal's curfew is 3 am, but then her unfettered friends don't have any curfews; indeed, Josh doesn't even have a home. His mother, who has remarried and doesn't know how to handle Josh's disruptive behavior, has thrown him out of the house and he lives on the street, not unlike a shelter reject, scrounging around for food and his next drink. "The Moonlight Room" is a sad work about modern families suffering from fragmentation and chaos, and the lost youngsters that emerge from them.

"I set out to look at kids at risk, not their families," noted Skyler. "But how can you look at any personal crisis without looking at family? It's our most primal relationship. The world has changed from Eugene O'Neill's time and the plays that deal with family are going to reflect those changes. But the family—whatever its structure—is eternal and I'm not convinced that the emotions in connection with the family are different, simply because the world has changed. What's different—what I think we'll be seeing in the future onstage—is the way those feelings are expressed. There will be new ways of looking at and presenting the family."

Old feelings, new forms? That remains to be seen.

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