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LOOKING FOR NORMAL

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A man and his wife sit down with their parish minister to discuss their marital problems. It turns out the husband has decided to switch his gender. Do you think the minister will be worldly-wise and hip, offering great counsel and emerging as the guiding light in the play? Do you think the man's decision will be so morally complex and emotionally byzantine that we won't know how we feel about it when we leave the theatre? Do you think the wife will abandon her husband despite her love, so we're not sure in the end if we love her or hate her?

Well, never fear, Looking for Normal is not a play to challenge your mind or your heart—the minister is naïve and comical, the husband briefly conflicted but triumphant, and the wife disturbed but faithful. This is a made-for-TV movie in which issues are served "lite." Or at least it should have been a TV movie. Unfortunately this string of two-minute scenes and pat, jokey exchanges are offered up as theatre. Theatre it is not.

Set "somewhere in Ohio"—which is typically the setting writers choose when they don't want to research actual characters in real situations but rather want to set up simple folk with all their silly prejudices and funny, backwards thinking to teach a lesson—Jane Anderson's trifle of a script runs its uninspired course through the standard scenes of a family dealing with "the change" (the rock 'n' roll roadie son is against it, the closeted lesbian daughter's all for it, the grandparents will never understand) and ends with the heartfelt and cloying proposal that love will conquer all. The play is harmless, I suppose, and God knows its politically correct heart is in the right place, but there's no real conflict for the characters here or the audience, for that matter, and worse, in its simplification Looking for Normal becomes condescending to the point of being offensive.

Much is wasted here—foremost Laurie Metcalf and Beau Bridges as the couple. Metcalf's breathtaking talent—for instance her ability to throw away a line so deftly that even in the second act of this frustrating soap opera she stills earns well-deserved laughs—actually raises this material higher than it deserves. The same goes for Bridges' grounded, low-key take on his role, which manages to bring a little dignity to some half-baked situations. Others don't fare so well, mostly because they're strapped with insurmountably shallow and misguided characters. Take, for example, the talented Becky Wahlstrom, who, for some unfathomable reason, is a grown woman asked to play the couple's 13-year-old daughter. She gives it her all, but this pouty, wise-before-her-time waif is only a slight sketch of a real person—even for this show.

Then there's Michael Learned, who suffers like Job under the weight of the "sage" role, Ruth, our transgenderer's cross-dressing grandmother, who left her family to travel the world and slept with whomever she chose (even Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, for some reason) and had a wonderful time. This Auntie Mame in a baggy suit wanders onto the stage occasionally to offer her pearls of wisdom and to scold a society that just doesn't get it.

Director Ron Lagomarsino tries to speed things along. His revolving set makes the commercial-length scenes fly by, but there's not much he can do here except make this most digestible of offerings even easier to swallow. In the end, wise old Grandmother Ruth puts it best as she laments, "People would rather be shocked than enlightened." Hell, I'd take either. But this play only satisfies if you're looking for normal. And theatre must offer more than that.

"Looking for Normal," presented by and at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Tues.-Thurs. 7:30 p.m., Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 4 & 8:30 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Apr. 11-May 6. $21-43. (310) 208-5454.

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