Dysfunctional Family Fury
This is one instance when the story behind the scenes upstages the action in the play. David Caudle's family drama The Sunken Living Room, now receiving its world premiere at New Theatre, has been through quite a real-life saga.
It was scheduled to open at the acclaimed Southern Rep in New Orleans in 2005, but Hurricane Katrina hit and the venue was forced to close until spring. Caudle then turned to his native Miami and Rafael de Acha's New Theatre a company always on the lookout for new work. De Acha agreed, and after some financial uncertainty brought about by Hurricane Wilma, the on-again, off-again season in the Gables got back on track, showcasing The Sunken Living Room for its season finale. It is a coproduction with Southern Rep, where, weather permitting, it will play next season. And it is directed by Ryan Rilette, Southern Rep's artistic director. The cast, a fine-tuned quartet composed of John Magaro, Arianne Ellison, Rudy Mungaray, and Pamela Roza, is splendid.
Take this scene: a nice house in Miami in 1978. Wade is a cute but awkward sixteen-year-old virgin. While Chip Wade's older brother is out buying drugs, the youngster is seduced by his brother's girlfriend Tammy. The two have progressed from a first kiss standing up to basic making out on the couch yes, in the family's sunken living room and some second-base action. Nothing is happening, really, at least not for Wade. So the experienced Tammy suggests playing with the nipples, which she says always seems to work. Wade, in all innocence and heartbreaking hilarity, turns his back on her and begins tweaking his own nipples. The brief scene is at once real and ridiculous, directed just on the edge of too-muchness and acted with unassuming simplicity. The audience roars. It is a priceless moment.
It is also, frankly, a rare moment in Caudle's new play, but it is still a gem. Never mind that an almost identical, famous situation occurs in A Chorus Line. Never mind, too, that Caudle's play about a 24-hour period in the life of a dysfunctional family is not so much a new Long Day's Journey into Night as a particularly potty-mouthed, appropriately Seventies ABC After School Special. Comparisons to either television's recent That '70s Show or to Luis Santeiro's pioneering ¿Qué Pasa, USA? are not always flattering to Caudle's new play. Even for a sitcom, The Sunken Living Room is a minor work. Still, there is real promise here: It takes a true dramatist's instinct to devise something as touching and funny as Wade's not-those-nipples-dummy scene. And John Magaro's performance in that scene is the stuff that launches a budding career to stardom. He reminded me of a young Matthew Broderick before Ferris Bueller's Day Off, when he made off-off-Broadway history at age sixteen playing the abused gay kid David in Widows and Children First, the third part of Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy. Like Broderick, Magaro seems intensely aware of his physicality and can milk a line for all its sensual worth. The way Wade watches his sexy older brother is an unforgettable image that makes a case that this young actor is one to keep an eye on.
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The production is fine, with sets by Jesse Dreikosen that evoke a low-budget, lower-middle-class version of the wall-to-wall-carpet world of Knots Landing. K. Blair Brown's costumes like Madonna's latest feathered hairdo are just right, a sublime mixture of the way things were and the way we want to remember them. Elsewhere are many virtues, opportunities for the cast and director to shine, which are taken with glowing assurance. Caudle's play boasts many nicely observed details. Not least among them is in the title itself, a metaphorical allusion to a room that is kept immaculate and always ready for "fancy visitors" who never seem to arrive.
When the cocaine-fueled brother returns home to find the unlikely pair of Wade and Tammy, the sunken living room becomes the battlefield for a furious family psychodrama. Wade, a gangly bookworm who just wants to finish his homework and keep his family together, may soon also realize he is gay. Chip, just a year older than Wade, has already knocked up a girlfriend and may yet grow up. Played by Rudy Mungaray, Chip is attractive and vulnerable, even if still a moral vacuum. Arianne Ellison plays Tammy with sexual assurance but also with a bit of distance that, despite fitting the pothead's character, keeps it from touching the audience. As Chip and Wade's mother Lynette, a woman more concerned with finishing her hand of bridge than with rushing home when her son might be overdosing, Pamela Roza makes the most of what is frankly not a fully fleshed-out role. The father, an airline pilot probably out nailing every stewardess he can, is powerful in his absence.
Rilette's direction is both snappy and patient. He wisely does not let his actors linger on lines that might not profit from considered reflection (too much of the script's character development is broad, didactic, and obvious). Yet this director also brings out the real life in the play with sensitivity and aplomb. A priceless scene, played in silence, has Lynette returning home to find her sunken living room ransacked by Chip's drug-induced search for cash. She goes about righting furniture by herself; then Wade does what he has always done and helps straighten up the place. But this time something might have changed, a point subtly communicated by both actors' physical language before Wade's enigmatic last line confirms the news. And that is what theater is all about.
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