at the Zephyr Theatre
This Deborah Zoe Laufer Los Angeles premiere is part dysfunctional family comedy and part metaphysical and contemplative drama but not successful as either, despite a strong cast and Lee Sankowich's clear direction. The entire ensemble pushes through unfunny scenarios with enough force to elicit laughs and provide honest performances that sell the heavy moments. But ultimately, except for one fascinating character, much of the two hours drags.
The Schwartz children come together in their childhood home in upstate New York to recognize the one-year anniversary of their father's death, a Jewish tradition known as yahrzeit. There's Herb (Alan Safier) and his wife, Bonnie (Pamela Gaye Walker), who was never accepted by the family, specifically by Norma (Valerie Perri), Herb's sister. Gene (Roy Abramsohn) arrives with girlfriend Kia (Steffany Huckaby), a young, seemingly ditsy model. And there's Simon (Tim Cummings), an astronomer who appears to suffer from autism and who spends almost the entire play looking through a telescope even though he's going blind and can no longer see the stars. Simon occasionally delivers soliloquies about his fantasies of living on the moon.
The catalyst for most of the extensive family fighting is the only original character, Kia, whose fresh perspective and naiveté are funny. Huckaby is captivating. She wears a permanent smile and offers each line with a mixture of surprise and optimism.
Also impressive is Walker, whose anguish as Bonnie makes her sympathetic. And Safier's blasé tone balances Bonnie's desperation. Sankowich's direction keeps the physical comedy realistic and the pace quick. She uses Giullio Perrone's comfortable living-room set well, moving the action around to keep it from being static. But too much of Laufer's script isn't interesting. The surprises aren't surprising and the jokes are obvious. Also, Simon's out-of-body experiences, though handled well by Cummings, don't fit the rest of the play.
Presented by and at the Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., L.A. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Oct. 20-Dec. 16. (323) 852-9111. www.plays411.com/schwartz.
Reviewed by Jeff Favre