Margaret isn't the only one who doesn't have time to deal with the multiple plotlines that entangle her; the novice author is similarly overwhelmed. He's got too much going on and doesn't bother exploring the causes of the family's avalanche of misfortune. Eldest son Travis (Ethan Hawke, at his smoldering best) returns to his blue-collar Connecticut home for a few days before Christmas. Unable to hold a job or a steady girlfriend and hooked on painkillers, he plans to drive cross-country and make a fresh start on the West Coast. His parents, shrewish Margaret (Ann Dowd) and bigoted Bill (Gordon Clapp), are constantly at each other's throats. Each has found companionship outside the marriage, yet they remain together, making each other miserable. Younger son Matt (Thomas Guiry) forges checks and commits petty larceny to pay off mounting gambling debts as his marriage crumbles. Only daughter Sarah (Natasha Lyonne) appears to have a relatively sane life.
Nohilly piles one calamity on top of another without explaining why the warring parents are still in the same house or what attracted them in the first place. He hints that their union was founded in deception and their conservative views forbid the possibility of divorce, but these are only scraps.
Ironically, most of this destructive clan work as caregivers or service providers: Margaret, Matt, and Sarah appear to be nurses, and Bill seems to be an all-purpose handyman. Yet they cannot manage their own mental or physical health. The heavy-handed symbolism doesn't stop there. Just as the family is falling apart, its rundown house is in ruins (the realistically squalid set is by Derek McLane). Pieces of the ceiling fall at regular intervals, windows are shattered, and nothing works, from the plumbing to the heating.
Scott Elliott delivers his usual persuasive staging, and the powerhouse cast—which also includes Daphne Rubin-Vega as Travis' former flame, who still has a thing for him—attempts to add depth to these one-dimensional basket cases. I particularly enjoyed Guiry's sly depiction of compulsive liar Matt. The actor actually had me believing that this con artist was the reasonable one in this crazy clan, until Matt's schemes unraveled at the final fadeout.
Despite admirable efforts by the ensemble and creative team to perform CPR on this critical case, the patient does not pull through.
Presented by the New Group at the Acorn Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St., NYC. Jan. 12–Feb. 19. Mon.–Wed., 7 p.m.; Thu. and Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 8 p.m. (No performance Wed., Jan. 19.) (212) 239-6200, (800) 432-7250, or www.telecharge.com. Casting by Judy Henderson.