A Boy Grows in Brooklyn

It's two weeks before Stewie's bar mitzvah and his family is having a collective breakdown. Doris, his mother, sits on the couch transforming her wedding gown into a Bride of Frankenstein costume for Halloween. Herbie, his father, shuffles home after work and refuses to talk to anyone. Younger brother Mitchell escapes into fantasy by working on Willy!, a musical version of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. And Stewie announces he won't go through with his impending rite of passage because Judaism is meaningless.

So begins 1989's The Loman Family Picnic, an amusing and disturbing bildungsroman for the stage about growing up in Brooklyn circa 1965. Written by Donald Margulies, author of the Obie Award-winning Sight Unseen (1991), the comedy derives its name from a production number in Mitchell's Broadway musical A a fantasy about a happy family outing in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. On-stage at Florida Playwrights' Theatre (FPT) in Hollywood, where it starts slowly but eventually picks up speed, The Loman Family Picnic chronicles events before, during, and after Stewie's bar mitzvah. Playwright Margulies relays his tale through a series of chronological scenes: Doris (Angela Thomas) convinces Stewie (Tony Elias) to go on with the big day; Mitchell (Nicolae Popescu), Stewie, and their mother dress up for Halloween; pictures are taken before the bar mitzvah party; Herbie (Rory Parker) freaks out over how much the whole affair costs.

These darkly comic vignettes unspool like home-movie outtakes of the family's most embarrassing moments. Yet Margulies knows they only partially convey the reality of family life. Therefore he intersperses the straightforward story line with asides to the audience, the appearance of dead relatives bearing advice (including Doris's Aunt Marsha, played by Teresa Turiano, who also directs the play), musical numbers from Willy!, and four versions of the play's ending. Although awkward in places, such interruptions change the comedy's sequential time frame into a surreal pastiche that has the sketchy quality of memory. This elliptical form of narrative seems truer to the way we recollect the past than does a linear telling of the same events.

In the hands of director Turiano, some of these devices prove clumsy. Ungainly concepts to begin with -- such as one of Doris and Herbie's conversations leaping forward into the future so that they discuss how each of them dies -- they lend the production an uneven, almost amateurish feel when staged by Turiano. And the first act would benefit from snappier, faster-paced direction and more rigorous attention to production values; scene changes in the tiny theater, where people in the first row find themselves practically nose to nose with the actors and the stage crew, are less than crisp. Turiano does pick up the tempo in act two, which features a frightening outburst by an enraged Herbie and a riotous montage of songs from Mitchell's opus in progress, performed by the entire clan.

At the heart of The Loman Family Picnic lie the characterizations of Doris and Herbie, Depression-era babies who reach a middle-class pinnacle in a Coney Island high-rise apartment, only to find themselves caught in a miserably codependent marriage. Although they're affectionately written characters, Doris and Herbie run the risk of turning into Jewish stereotypes if interpreted too broadly; after all, Doris rules the roost as the controlling mother, while Herbie sulks in silence as the ineffectual father. But here Turiano plays her strong suit. Her direction draws out the humanity within the parents, allowing the actors to avoid cliched portrayals.

Angela Thomas grabs hold of her role as Doris and never once lets go. She infuses the character with a larger-than-life energy, a bottomless capacity for denial, glimmers of self-awareness, and the desperate frustration of a woman burdened with misdirected ambition. And in act two Thomas lets her voice rip during that production number about the Lomans going on a picnic to Prospect Park. Frankly, I could have listened to Thomas burn through torch songs into the wee hours.

Initially, Rory Parker renders the vacant-eyed Herbie so enervated that the character barely seems to have a pulse; you have to strain to hear Parker's murmuring, much less to get a sense of the character he plays. Yet in act two, as Herbie's financial and emotional pressures build to a crescendo, Parker has him explode at his family with a terrifying, heartbreaking, and utterly believable fury.

As Stewie, thirteen-year-old Tony Elias has a tendency to garble several lines into one long sing-songy sentence. But he also imbues Stewie with a credible bar-mitzvah-boy swagger that never dislodges the chip on the kid's shoulder. And the actor effectively juggles Stewie's disappointment in his father with his anger at him.

Ten-year-old Nicolae Popescu sings and dances his way through the role of Mitchell -- a character based on playwright Margulies as a boy -- with consummate self-possession. "I'm a born overachiever," Mitchell announces to his mother, and, in Popescu's hands, he's also eerily perceptive, seeing the parallels between his family's brand of tragedy and the Lomans' in Death of a Salesman, a play he has read three times because he couldn't believe its similarity to his own life. While Mitchell's musical version of Miller's drama comes across as comical, it also plays as poignant; Popescu conveys just how much Mitchell will strive to create a bearable alternative to an anxiety-filled home.

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