Sitcom Macabre

In Donald Margulies' vision of the American meltdown, comedy quickly becomes nightmare

It's difficult to decide which is the most disturbing moment in The Loman Family Picnic, now in a masterful production at the Caldwell Theatre in Boca Raton. Is it the opening, with a haggard housewife endlessly repeating her desperate mantra "Ilovemylife, Ilovemylife, Ilovemylife" as she stares at a ghost-lit television? Is it the end of the first act, as her equally panicked husband hunches alone in the light of the same black-and-white set, feverishly gobbling ice cream from a half gallon container? Or is it the last, as their bewildered 11-year-old son crouches in his upper bunk bed, listening in on his parents' bleak, hopeless dining-table conversation? All of these moments painfully and precisely portray a family in profound crisis. But playwright Donald Margulies and director Michael Hall take these particulars and spin them into something even more unsettling. This Picnic, for all its comedic elements -- and there are many -- evokes a deeply disturbing vision of American cultural meltdown.

Margulies' tale, a memory play drawn from his own 1960s childhood, is structured like a television sitcom, but it plays like a ghost story with laughs. It's set in a tenth-floor apartment of a "middle income luxury residence" near Coney Island in Brooklyn. Vivacious, style-obsessed Doris Loman tries to emulate her late aunt Marsha, a free-living soul who died a suicide in her 20s. But try as she might, Doris lives a crushingly conventional, unhappy life with her depressed, alienated husband, Herb, a lighting-fixture salesman with little light of his own. Herb feels trapped and unappreciated by his family, and his strategy of silent coping only makes things worse. Their sons offer some hope. Thirteen-year-old Stewie is an academic achiever with the Ivies in his sights, and 11-year-old Mitchell is writing a musical based on Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, that play about those other Lomans. Doris looks forward to Stewie's impending bar mitzvah and spares no expense for the event.

The bar mitzvah really stirs up Herb, who burns with resentment about its high cost and with jealousy for all the attention focused on his son. He manages to keep his anger contained until after the party, when an eruption takes place.

Even with the obvious parallels to the Miller play, the basic plot line is conventional family drama. But Margulies injects sudden, surreal intrusions, as if anticipating the weirded-out, druggy mutations that America was about to encounter in the late '60s and early '70s. In moments of despair, Doris is visited by the ghost of Aunt Marsha. In these visitations, Marsha, a serene vision from the 1940s who always arrives in a whoosh of smoke, drifts around in a sleek lavender gown and a carefully styled hairdo, a walking refutation of Doris' trendy but empty '60s style, all autumnal browns and oranges and loud print patterns. At one point, Doris and Herb soberly discuss the details of each other's death as if they have both already died. At the bar mitzvah, Doris, suddenly spying a cousin who died in a Nazi death camp, summons the man, who's dressed in prison stripes. "The smorgasbord's over here -- you must be starving!" she says.

Such unsettling moments turn this very normal apartment into a Coney Island funhouse, with a queasy sense of dread and despair behind the ordered normalcy, though some of Margulies' surreal touches don't quite work. A second-act musical sequence from Mitchell's Death of a Salesman, stops the show cold, and the play's multiple endings, while interesting, are irrelevant to the resolution of the play.

But the Caldwell production is fine work, spearheaded by Hall's visually compelling staging and beautifully paced, deliciously unpredictable scene work. Case in point is a seemingly innocuous Halloween sequence when the boys dress up as a skeleton and the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Herb is so out of it he has to be told what day it is. The laughs continue when Doris enters from the bedroom done up as the Bride of Frankenstein. But gray-suited Herb can't contain his dismay that Doris has shredded her own wedding dress to make her Bride costume. Suddenly, the laughs stop as his brooding, inarticulate anguish turns the scene from comedy toward an underswell of menace, and Doris' Halloween costume begins to have more truth in it than it first appeared. When Doris and the boys leave to go trick-or-treating, Mitch suddenly returns to the doorway in skeleton costume and death's head mask, staring at Herb for an unnerving moment, a creepy punctuation to a perfectly spooky scene.

As Doris, Lisa Bansavage is splendid, gracefully balancing desperate angst and wry comedy. Both of the youngsters, Michael Kushner as Stewie and Aaron Simon Gross as playwright Margulies' stand-in -- the budding playwright Mitchell -- have a keen sense of comic timing as well as professional song-and-dance skills. Rachel Jones does a fine job with the classy, remote Marsha, and Buzz Bovshow nicely limns Herb's despair and cruelty, though this oddly underwritten role (for all of the focus on Herb, the script never really gets to the heart of his angst) could use more emotional detail. The acting is backed with Tim Bennett's outstanding set design, a colorful but emotionally dead living space. Thomas Salzman's lighting design is equally effective, ranging from high-wattage, sitcom-style lighting to decidedly creepier elements -- spidery projections and ghostly rectangles of light from the apartment windows in the distance, an effect that echoes the television screen and creates a subtle, harrowing sense of menace and isolation.

 
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