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Family: The Drama

Ah, the dysfunctional family. We all have one or know one, and playwrights seem to know a lot of them. Feuding families have been with us at least as long as drama has existed. The Greeks had the house of Atreus. Shakespeare had King Lear and his daughters. Then there are Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams and Sam Shepard. There have been so many family dramas down the ages that there are entire subgenres. One such is the "weekend showdown." This is how it goes: A disparate roster of family members with long, seething resentments and at least one big secret spend a weekend together. During this time, family conflicts build until, just before the gathering is over, the big secret is revealed; then everyone departs, their lives changed forever.

Another category is the "disruptive outsider," a powerful interloper whose arrival upsets the family balance, in so doing revealing hidden secrets. Both conventions get a workout in Deborah Zoe Laufer's The Last Schwartz, in its world-premiere production at Florida Stage. Although its story concept is about as original as a paper clip, The Last Schwartz is blessed with a mordant sense of humor, stylish direction, and a crack acting ensemble.

The story takes place in the living room of an old traditional family home in Upstate New York to which the Schwartz family, three brothers and their older sister, have returned to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of their strict religious father. The oldest brother, Herb, is a likable old shoe whose long-time childless marriage to high-strung, weepy Bonnie has cooled. He spars with his bossy elder sister, Norma, who insists the family continue her parents' Jewish traditions and deplores Herb's secularism. Desperate to please, Bonnie strives to fulfill Norma's every wish but never gets any approval. And Norma, who is intent on keeping the family home just as it was during her parents' lifetimes, is stunned when Herb mentions that he spoke with a real-estate agent about selling the place.

Meanwhile, the youngest brother, Simon, an astronomy nut with an array of mental and physical problems, is off in his own world, spending hour upon wordless hour staring through a telescope. Into this less-than-happy household arrives the third brother, Gene, a film director with a wannabe actress, Kia, in tow. Kia's a hedonistic hippie chick from California "generally from, like, around the Venice Beach area," whose airheaded cheerfulness and 24/7 sexual availability throws the Schwartz clan into a tizzy.

As the characters collide and sometimes spar, a number of issues are raised: adultery, fertility, the loss of traditions, and the survival of Jewish identity in the American polyglot (hence the play's title), a subject that has been in the news lately. These issues are played out in several story conflicts, but before long, the play zeroes in on Bonnie, about as conflicted a character as she can be. She plods along in a marriage that's gone stale while longing for the child she never had, the lover she had but can't hold, and the approval she'll never get.

Director Louis Tyrrell's staging is particularly clear and precise, using Allen Cornell's detailed, hyperrealistic, living-room set in inventive staging. Although Laufer's humor is largely dialogue-driven, Tyrrell has added quite a lot of physical comedy. His cast is solid in individual performances and as an ensemble. The men do well, though in this play, they are decidedly playing second fiddle to the women. Buzz Bovshow's Herb is a kindler, gentler George Costanza, a balding, chubby, bespectacled Everynebbish. Greg Keller does well as the strange Simon, as does Johnathan F. McClain as amiable womanizer Gene, although his WASP-y, gee-whiz take on the character seems culturally at odds with the rest of this family and perhaps overly similar to his WASP-y, gee-whiz character in last season's Red Herring.

The women have more to do, with better-written characters. As Norma, Elizabeth Dimon becomes a nightmare of an older sister, making life hell for her siblings as well as for herself. Like the other Schwartzes, Norma is a character in conflict, and Dimon handles her zigzags nicely. It's good to see this veteran actress sink her teeth into a role of substance after a string of less-well-written roles. As Kia, Mayhill Fowler hits the comedic notes but doesn't take this cartoonish character anywhere: She's a wide-eyed space cadet from start to finish. Not so with Alicia Roper, whose marvelous, nuanced performance portrays Bonnie as a seemingly meek wallflower who's roiling with repressed passion and rage. Roper is a whiz at portraying Bonnie's conflicted yearning. An early dinner scene pits Norma against Herb in sibling bickering while Bonnie tries to placate and please. Casually shot down every time, Bonnie takes to hitting the Mani-schewitz nip after nip until she's quietly stewed. It's a wonderful, wordless portrait of quiet desperation.

The Last Schwartz offers an array of pleasures, but like the family, it has its problems. Weighty issues are brought up in this play -- pregnancy and abortion are significant story crises -- but once they are raised, they aren't explored, let alone resolved.

The de rigueur big secret makes for the climax, of course, and features Roper in a bravura performance. But what consequence this is supposed to have is not firmly established. Sure, the truth will out, but once the air is cleared, the stage is cleared: The characters pack up in one quick final scene, and off they and the play go in a rush. So what happened exactly? Has anything changed? Have relationships been repaired? Have lessons been learned? Or is this the dramatic equivalent of CNN news: Is merely raising an issue really as good as discussing or exploring it?

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Ronald Mangravite

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