Reviewed by Julius Novick
Presented by Elliot Martin, Max Cooper, Ron Shapiro, and Sharon Karmazin at the Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, NYC, Nov. 20-Jan. 28.
"Down the Garden Paths" takes up the ever-tantalizing question of how different one's life would be if some crucial event or other had turned out differently. In real life, this question is a dangerous one, productive of regrets, recriminations, and all sorts of unprovable theories, but Anne Meara, performer turned playwright, has made of it a shrewd, warm-hearted, likeable 90-minute comedy of family dysfunction.
Many years ago, little Max Garden fell into Kiamesha Lake in the Catskills, and his brother Arthur saved his life—or didn't. Ms. Meara's play shows us four ways in which the Garden family's destiny might have worked itself out. Arthur, personably played by John Shea, is the protagonist. In the first episode, he and his wife are childless, and he is shtupping Max's wife. In the second, Max is long since drowned, and Arthur and his wife have a college-age daughter, just out of rehab. In the third, Arthur is gay. The fourth Garden path will not be revealed here.
Max's parents are the comedy team of Sid Garden and Stella Dempsey. He is Jewish and she Irish; thus they bear a more-than-coincidental resemblance to the Jewish-Irish comedy team of Stiller and Meara, otherwise known as Ms. Meara and her husband Jerry Stiller (who makes a guest appearance in the play, on video). Sid and Stella are very pleasantly played by another interfaith couple of veteran performers, Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson: he tart and crusty, she expansive and hearty. (The cast of this family affair also includes Roberta Wallach and Amy Stiller.) David Saint has directed a briskly paced ensemble performance.
In spite of its what-if structure, "Down the Garden Paths" is really a rather conventional family comedy, with a few notes of pathos mixed in. But there is substance to it. Its abundant laughter is rooted in Ms. Meara's understanding of the way in which old grievances, obsessions, and insensitivities, can cross even the best of familial intentions.