That everyone has a family is an almost incontrovertible observation, and it’s a very small step indeed from that bromide to “everyone has a dysfunctional family.” But most of our screwed-up clans manage to contain their crazy – even around each other – better than the familial foursome at the heart of Zoe Kazan’s new drama We Live Here, now playing at Manhattan Theater Club.
When the play opens, midlife mom Maggie (an oddly miscast Amy Irving) is preparing the lovely, bookish New England home where she and her philosophy professor husband Lawrence (Mark Blum) live for the wedding of their daughter, Althea (an impressively edgy Jessica Collins) and her fiancé Sandy (played with charm and conviction by Jeremy Shamos). But as the clan gathers, the dysfunction doesn’t unfold; it all but attacks the audience. When each character arrives on stage, his or her issues might as well appear in superscript with a big arrow.
When younger daughter Dinah (Betty Gilpin) shows up from college, Maggie immediately begins urging her to eat (anorexic), and she makes a series of furtive phone calls (inappropriate significant other). Maggie, meantime, nonchalantly begins opening Althea’s wedding presents (overbearing narcissist), while Lawrence does whatever Maggie tells him (ineffectual). Althea, when at last she makes her entrance, is sharp-tongued and querulous, while Sandy’s good-natured joviality make you wonder if even he has a hidden streak of masochism driving him to marry into this moody family.
Make no mistake: This is a frustrating play to watch. Directed by Sam Gold with evident thought and nuance, it’s still uneven and often heavy handed: It overstates, over-explains and under-delivers. After a series of heavy clues are dropped, Dinah’s secret at last joins the action: Daniel (a subdued Oscar Isaac) is not only considerably older than Dinah, he’s the former boyfriend of Althea’s dead twin, Andi. And the exact circumstance surrounding Andi’s death a decade and a half ago is, it seems, the primordial secret poisoning this family.
But despite Kazan’s obvious discomfort with exposition and structure, she has a real gift for dialogue and for depicting human interactions, and once she’s finally established her characters and set forth their contrived, convoluted case history, real people replace the caricatures and, at moments, her script shines. The mixed reception Daniel gets from the family; the snarky, loving interplay between Althea and Sandy; the scenes where Daniel and Althea recall the last day of Andi’s life, are smart, sharp, sensitively observed and very compelling. If Kazan can turn that intuition and intelligence into finding the right story to tell, she’ll have a real winner on her hands one day and not just, as the couple behind me at the theater dismissively referred to it, “another dysfunctional family drama.”