That Screwball Family of Yours

There's a moose in the guest bedroom in Michael McKeever's new comedy 37 Postcards. The animal never makes an appearance onstage (a taxidermist crossed its path long before the play begins), but it does take part in the events that unfold when Avery Sutton, a young man newly returned from a six-year sojourn in Europe, brings his fiancee Gillian home to meet his family in WASP-haven Darien, Connecticut.

Although we never see the moose, we do learn that his glass eyes, staring straight at the bed, prevent Gillian (Leila Piedrafita) from sleeping. She insists it's the moose that's keeping her awake, but more likely she can't rest because it's dawning on her that she's about to marry into a clan of lunatics.

By the time she retires to the guest room shortly after arriving, Gillian has been insulted by Avery's grandmother; asked to pronounce the word "fellatio" by Avery's aunt, a phone-sex entrepreneur; and, thanks to Avery's daffy mother, repeatedly mistaken for the maid. That's just in the first act.

Although it's not entirely lighthearted, 37 Postcards is a comedy about -- you guessed it -- a so-called dysfunctional family populated with dotty characters, in this case including not only Avery's maternal relatives but also his father Stanford, an apparently daft and absent-minded blue blood who likes to play impromptu games of golf in the middle of the night.

Did I mention that Avery has a grandmother? For the better part of Act One, this topic is up for debate. Although his mother wrote him that Nana passed away while he was gone, Avery encounters his grandmother (Ellen Davis) soon after he first walks in the door. "Who the hell are you?" she asks.

Nana may be a bit "wonky," as Aunt Ester puts it, but Avery is dumbfounded. Ester (Kimberly Daniel) explains that although Avery's parents think they attended Nana's funeral, she's actually living in a small room off the kitchen. "Maybe they're more eccentric than I remembered," he admits to Gillian. Avery also remembers that when he left for Europe six years earlier, the Sutton house was not literally sinking into the ground. "It's 'settling,'" explains his mother, though Avery takes the sinking to heart. He knows it's a metaphor for the family's inner turmoil. For example, Avery's mother keeps insisting he sent her postcards -- 37 of them -- while he was away; he knows he sent none.

Michael McKeever, who lives in Davie, wrote 37 Postcards for New Theatre's New Plays Project, which commissions works by Florida playwrights and is funded, in part, by the theater's recent grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. (Hey, Jesse Helms, can you say "fellatio"?) Another recent McKeever work, the extraordinary The Garden of Hannah List, played at the Florida Stage earlier this year. In addition to writing plays, McKeever, who in local theater circles is often described as the Most Talented Person Ever to Set Foot in South Florida, is a graphic artist whose posters include works for Radio City Music Hall, the Miami International Film Festival, and Good Morning America. He's also an actor, and in fact stars here as Avery.

McKeever's usual golden touch is missing here; Postcards doesn't have enough personality to stand out from the dozens of other works it resembles. While the Suttons may be more eccentric than Avery remembers, the rest of us encounter folks like them everywhere we turn. In fact, it's impossible to sit through the play without thinking of a half-dozen classic comedies (Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, et al.) about people dragging friends home to meet their oddball relatives.

Of course, the appeal of idiosyncratic families as a subject for tragedy or comedy is that we all have a metaphorical moose in the guest room. (In my family, we have a stuffed swordfish.) And from time to time all of us feel like the human offspring of aliens. Eccentric relatives, from Eugene O'Neill's Tyrones in Long Day's Journey into Night to television's The Addams Family, have populated theater stages, movie screens, and novels for so long they've become cliche. One family's Aunt Ester with a phone-sex business is another family's Uncle Fester sleeping on a bed of nails.

The play, however, does have its charms. Indeed the ghost of Moss Hart -- whose 1936 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy You Can't Take It with You set the standard for zany families in American plays -- hovers over 37 Postcards like a kindly guardian angel. (The exploding toilet that plagues the Suttons is a singularly Hart-ish device.) While the play is nicely constructed and perfectly enjoyable (and chock full of jokes about Nana slapping her neighbor, Martha Stewart), its depiction of WASPs as a well-dressed but emotionally restrained tribe isn't especially fresh. As a budding McKeever fan, I found Postcards disappointing, coming as it does so soon after The Garden of Hannah List, which made the terrors of the Holocaust seem new.

Like many domestic comedies, the story of the Suttons has a darker side, and McKeever's strongest asset here is his ability to occasionally insert hints of grief and loss into the play's lighter elements. Unfortunately the audience catches on to the source of the Suttons' grief long before the characters do. Could Avery's parents think Nana is dead because, in fact, that would be easier to digest than the death of another family member? Anyone attuned to the playwright's sensibility will easily guess the fate of Avery's missing twin brother and the role he plays in the family's collective state of mind.

More surprising is the way the congenial tone of the play is betrayed by the speech McKeever gives Avery near the end of the play in order to make sense of his tortured homecoming. McKeever is too talented a playwright to have a character simply spell out the obvious. How he got himself -- and his own character, for Pete's sake -- into the sentimental morass that ends the play is a mystery. This type of family comedy, which can certainly survive the addition of layered meanings and subtlety, is nonetheless too delicate to withstand the emotional kneading McKeever puts it through here.

The playwright's radical shift in tone gets his director into trouble too. Up until the point when the action takes its lamentable turn for the maudlin, Barry Steinman's steering is confident and creative. He's deft at evoking the Suttons' outlandishness through physical comedy: One hilarious scene has Stanford herding the unsuspecting Gillian out of the house for a game of midnight golf by pulling her along with his golf club. If only the director could mitigate the melodrama. When Avery utters the one dark truth no one in the family will admit to, Steinman has Avery's mother deliver a sharp slap to her son's face that draws all the air out of the room. It's too big a moment, hugely inappropriate; the play, by now drowning in mush, never recovers.

The actors, however, do prevail. Whatever my misgivings about 37 Postcards, they weren't for lack of a sturdy cast. They triumph over McKeever's fumbling script as well as Guillermo Mediavilla's odd costume choices. (When the good citizens of Darien dress for dinner, do they actually outfit themselves as though they were supping at the White House? I don't think so.) Leila Piedrafita, an actress born to play Noël Coward heroines (and dressed here as though she has wandered in from Private Lives), infuses Gillian with a personality at once fragile and flabbergasted.

As Avery's parents, Sally Levin and John Barnett are wonderfully demented in the way that people who create their own reality ought to be. Kimberly Daniel, cloaked in a series of red-and-orange dresses (and a very un-WASPy head of orange hair), is pleasantly engaging as Aunt Ester. And Ellen Davis's Nana is deliciously crotchety. As for McKeever the actor, his performance as Avery -- solid, thoughtful, emotionally grounded -- transcends the shortcomings of the role. He'll survive 37 Postcards and so will the rest of us, moose in the bedroom and all.

37 Postcards.
Written by Michael McKeever; directed by Barry Steinman; with John Barnett, Kimberly Daniel, Ellen Davis, Sally Levin, Michael McKeever, and Leila Piedrafita. Through September 6. New Theatre, 65 Almeria Ave, Coral Gables; 305-443 -5909.

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Robin Dougherty

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