Reasons to Live
Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Open Fist Theatre at Skylight Theatre
Through Nov. 30
There may indeed be crazier families than the clan on display in playwright Meryl Cohn’s often charming comedy, but you will be hard pressed to find one that wears its neuroses as proudly as this one. Cohn’s unspoken mantra appears to be that families are the great storehouse of crazy behavior — and you can’t really get away from your family, either.
On the eve of her marriage, therapist Jane Silverstein (Jessica Ires Morris) is left stranded at the altar by her groom, who runs for the hills leaving her a three-word goodbye note. However, increasingly delusional mom Stella (Judith Scarpone) has already ordered the wedding kugel and all the relatives are arriving for the event –- so she decides to keep the party going anyway, despite Jane’s escalating emotional collapse. Younger sister Emily (Amanda Weier), who has always been jealous of her older sister, brings her lesbian girlfriend Heather (Jordana Berliner) to the party and uses the cancelled wedding to announce that she and the lover are engaged — even though she and Heather have had exactly one date. Meanwhile, Emily’s twin brother Andrew (Michael Cotter) is running some kind of a creepy online sales business out of his room in Stella’s house — and the mysterious sideline results in an unexpected visitor who shows up on the family’s doorstep.
This is a promising play, able to coast a long way on the not insignificant charms of its bracing yet sensitive dialogue, and nicely three-dimensional characterizations. Cohn has a great ear for one-liners and for limning situations that shift with deftness from comedy to pathos and back again. And director Susan Morganstern’s even-handed staging finds an artful balance between shrill farce and a genuinely appealing affection for the characters.
However, the plot starts out like a quirky John Guare tale of edgy interaction, but devolves gradually into mushy, unearned sentiment, forcing an awkward happy ending that’s both undeserved and under-motivated. Some of the play’s dramatic elements vary in believability – the relationship between Emily and Heather is the only one that is depicted with the full depth that approaches believability. The play concludes with several developments that just feel clumsy, imposed on the piece to wind things up. It’s not enough for the writer to introduce some likable characters — something compelling needs to be done with them once they’re introduced, and in that sense, the work falters.
And yet the play boasts idiosyncratic details that genuinely delight — a scene in which the shrieking, suicidal Jane, who works as a professional therapist, abruptly pulls herself together to handle a phone consultation with a distraught patient; and a sequence in which twins Emily and Andrew speak to each other in a weird, invented “twin”-ly language, for example. The vivid, engaging performances include the delightful Morris’s self hating Jane; Scarpone’s lovely Ruth Gordon-y mom, and Weier’s intriguingly brittle Emily.
Open Fist Theatre Company and the Skylight Theatre, 1816 ½ N. Vermont Ave, Los Feliz; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Nov. 30. (213) 761-7061, http://skylighttix.com