Los Angeles Theater Review: A FAMILY THING (Echo Theatre Company

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by Tom Chaits on February 18, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles

BRAWL IN THE FAMILY

It’s a funny thing about families. We didn’t choose them, but they form the most important relationships in our lives. It’s the luck of the draw and some of us get dealt the aces and some the deuces. In A Family Thing, Gary Lennon’s brutal black comedy of familial misfortune, the deck was definitely stacked against the Burns boys from the start. All manner of depravity – drugs, alcohol, physical abuse, mental abuse, suicide, abandonment – was hoisted upon them from an early age. While the three estranged brothers may have survived their childhood on the mean streets of NY, they have not risen from the ashes unscathed. They are doing the best they can but alas, through no fault of their own, their best is not always good enough.

Tom Chaits' Stage and Cinema review of A FAMILY THING at Stage 52, Los Angeles

As the show opens we meet Sean Burns (Sean Wing) as he is about to plummet to his death. He’s talked down by Joe Wheeler (Darryl Stephens) a “life coach” who just happens upon the scene. The youngest of the siblings and a successful writer of ironically family friendly fare, Sean has chosen a preemptive strike on his own life before his brother Jim (Johnny Messner), who was just released from prison, can hunt him down and carry out the deed himself in retribution for Sean’s gayness. Oldest bro Frank (Saverio Guerra), who has a wife (Andrea Grano), a son, a drug addiction and a proclivity for prostitutes (Maria Cina), is on Jim’s hit list as well for ratting him out to the cops, which resulted in a five year incarceration.

Tom Chaits' Stage and Cinema review of A FAMILY THING at Stage 52, Los Angeles

Nowadays, it’s all the rage to present plays straight through in under 90 minutes without an intermission. Basically they are nothing more than extended one acts that insure you don’t stress the ever-shortening attention spans of your audience. For some shows, 90 minutes is about 89 minutes too long but for others 90 minutes feels rushed.

The latter is definitely the case here. Mr. Lennon may have some theater under his belt (The Interlopers), but he is also an accomplished television writer who is well aware of the constraints of telling your tale in “cut to the chase” TV time (he has worked on gritty and hard hitting shows like The Shield and Justified). Exposition and back story – which is really piled on here – flies so fast and furious in the opening minutes of the show that it has an almost numbing effect. In addition, relationships are forged and cemented in mere moments:  Sean and Joe are practically married by the first scene change; and Jim hooks up with his case worker Louise (Elizabeth Regen) at a not-for-profit convict help center during their initial encounter and are soon inseparable. In the end, it may be for the greater good but it is all a bit too neat and tidy. It would have been more effective, not to mention satisfying, to allow the family history and the romances to unfold at a more leisurely pace.

Tom Chaits' Stage and Cinema review of A FAMILY THING at Stage 52, Los Angeles

That being said, once Lennon crosses over the “set-up” finish line and all the pieces are in play, he eases off the throttle a bit and allows his rogue’s gallery to fully come to life. They are a colorful group with checkered pasts, and at times so troubled that you feel grateful for your comparatively less horrifying existence. His blatantly honest in-your-face dialogue skillfully teeters on the edge and manages to be both disturbing and hilarious, often at the same time.

Tom Chaits' Stage and Cinema review of A FAMILY THING at Stage 52, Los Angeles

The cast soars under the direction of Chris Fields. It is a result of their finely tuned performances that you are willing to forgive the script its minor trespasses. It would be impossible to single any one actor out. They are a true ensemble that rises to the top together. It is a testament to the cast’s talents that we can feel their character’s pain and longing so fully. Their commitment to uncovering each person’s inherent humanity allows the audience to empathize and sympathize with these lost souls in a compassionate and accepting way. The bottom line is that they are all looking for love and they deserve it even if they are broken or less than savory.

Tom Chaits' Stage and Cinema review of A FAMILY THING at Stage 52, Los Angeles

Stephen Gifford’s set is straightforward and simple: To one side is a table and chairs which serve in several configurations as different places (an office, a kitchen, a waiting room, a church) and on the other side is a bedroom setting which also does multiple duty(at one point or another just about every character gets under the covers). Lighting by Matt Richter, costumes by Kathryn Poppen, and sound by Drew Dalzell round out the technical elements in fine style.

Tom Chaits' Stage and Cinema review of A FAMILY THING at Stage 52, Los Angeles

A Family Thing is an engrossing look into the underbelly of a truly dysfunctional family and the meaning of love. It’s a trip to the dark side that will give you pause and good reason to appreciate just how screwed up your life is not.

Tom Chaits' Stage and Cinema review of A FAMILY THING at Stage 52, Los Angeles

 

photos by Danielle Larson

A Family Thing
Echo Theater Company at Stage 52
scheduled to end on March 17, 2013
for tickets, call (877) 369-9112
or visit http://www.EchoTheaterCompany.com

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