Shooting Blanks

"First of all, when you've got a gun," Stephen Sondheim points out in his musical Assassins, "everybody pays attention." That's for sure, as audience members experiencing the third-act explosion in a classic drama such as Chekhov's Three Sisters can attest. But what happens when you have two guns? What if one of the guns is a water pistol? What if the guns don't really help you pay attention? In Better Living, a comedy about a so-called dysfunctional family, two firearms make appearances, but neither really makes an impression.

In fact there's so much going on in Better Living -- much of it unfocused and confusing -- that the guns are just extra items in an already cluttered dramatic landscape. As it happens, the set is a mess, too, though that part of the play's disorganization is by design. The kitchen of matriarch Nora's house, with its peeling wallpaper and dirty appliances, is the center of much activity. Nora is a woman with three grown daughters, one of whom -- Gail -- has apparently left her laundry and old sneakers on the kitchen floor. Everyone else has merely deposited detritus from their emotional lives.

It's an unseen portion of the house, however, that takes up a large portion of the characters' energy. Nora is trying to add on a new room, one that will be located under the house. "Where would my family be without my initiative?" asks Nora, pointing out that there is no space in her crowded, inner-city neighborhood to build alongside the house, for example, or behind it. But Nora's home isn't the only thing changing shape. Her family is also reorganizing, particularly with middle daughter Mary Anne moving back after a failed marriage, and Gail's slacker boyfriend moving in. Oldest daughter Elizabeth, a lawyer, maintains her own apartment. Nora's brother, a cynical priest called Uncle Jack, doesn't live with the family but spends much of his time in Nora's living room.

The most intriguing dweller here, though, is a man claiming to be Tom, Nora's husband, who has been missing for ten years. Why did he go, and why has he supposedly come back? The answers to these two questions infuse the play with a puzzling ambiguity, although not the sort that raises compelling dramatic questions. Rather, the uncertainty in Better Living is the kind, marked by dead ends and red herrings, that makes one wonder if the playwright, George F. Walker, actually set out to explore an authentic human experience or was merely playing around with ideas he'd seen in other plays. Occasional motifs and themes from works as disparate as Moliere's Tartuffe and Sam Shepard's Buried Child pass through Better Living, never pausing long enough to give the play a personality of its own.

The mystery begins when this so-called Tom arrives, and Nora insists he is an impostor. In fact Nora says that Tom is dead, now a mere spirit who occasionally possesses Gail. Her daughters aren't so sure. So when this "Tom" decides to stay and become part of the household, no one objects, especially when he begins to fix things around the house. A kind of family-centric guru with survivalist leanings, Tom is rechristened "Tim" and soon has almost the entire family organized around household projects. The biggest job, of course, is finishing Nora's underground room, but the exceedingly anxious Mary Anne is put to work stuffing envelopes, a task she understands just gives her something to do without worrying. It's all a part of Tom/Tim's plan to save the world, or at least this family.

Which brings us back to the guns. Twice this Tom/Tim character is threatened by family members brandishing weapons, but the characters' urgency to avenge themselves against someone who may be a deserting father and husband dissolves as quickly as it arrives. The concerns of Nora and her daughters are reshaped by Tom/Tim's rantings about an exceedingly dark future from which he wants to protect them. Tom/Tim wants to help the family live better. Does he know what he's talking about? More important, do we?

We may not understand who this guy really is, but the bigger problem is that we don't care. Multiple reasons exist for why Better Living isn't a good play, but it's pointless to name all of them. Suffice it to say that whether or not you buy the notion that the comedy exists in a universe where exorcism is a reality and large families can exist on income derived from stuffing envelopes, there's no consistent emotional reality sustained throughout the play. Equally unfortunate, despite the usually top-drawer acting at the Hollywood Boulevard Theatre, is that only a handful of performances in this production, those by the older cast members, are persuasive. Much of the acting is overstated, and director Arland Russell, whose work I've admired in the past, allows his cast -- particularly its younger members -- to indulge in yelling rather than a more sophisticated portrayal of intense emotions.

Despite its shortcomings, however, Better Living is not going to disappear after this run. (The play was first staged in Canada in 1986, by the Canadian Stage Company. A sequel, Escape From Happiness, was produced in the early '90s in a collaboration between Baltimore Center Stage and Yale Repertory Company.) The work has already been adapted for the movies, thanks to Olympia Dukakis' now-defunct, New Jersey-based Whole Theatre Company. The film, now in postproduction according to the play's program notes, stars Dukakis, Roy Scheider, and Edward Herrmann. But I doubt that actors even of this caliber can redeem a play so devoid of compelling emotional truths. Not even if they use real guns.

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