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Genevieve Walker: The Intelligent Dysfunction of We Live Here

October 30, 2011

Kazan’s play is full of the “come to dinner!” kind of hollering that merely stands in for familial normalcy that never really happens outside of television.

By Genevieve Walker

We-Live-Here-575.jpgPhotograph by Joan Marcus.

Zoe Kazan’s New York playwriting premiere We Live Here starts with wedding presents. Days before her daughter’s marriage, Maggie (Amy Iriving) tears open a box and marks down gift, giver, and description (e.g. “ugly vase”) on a notepad. Just getting another to-do done, she tells her youngest daughter Dinah (Betty Gilpin) who is standing arms akimbo, drop-jawed at her mom’s audacity. It’s this brand of over-parenting and nuttiness that forms the core of Kazan’s family saga, showing at City Center Stage until November 6.

Pegged to the emotional triathlon of a wedding, the play is about one guest’s unexpected interruption of this family’s happy dysfunction. Without letting anyone know, youngest daughter Dinah has invited her much older boyfriend from Juilliard, Daniel (Oscar Isaac), to the wedding of her sister Althea (Jessica Collins). More than just a difficult seating shuffle at the reception, Daniel’s appearance will prove trickier than Dinah thought—and weightier than we expect. Unbeknownst to Dinah, her whole family already knows him and may have good reason not to want to see him. As Daniel hugs a stiff-backed Maggie, it’s clear we’re missing a piece of this puzzle.

The first half of the play is full of reunion, reconciliation, breakdowns, and maddeningly ambiguous half-reveals of why Daniel’s presence is so upsetting. Maggie and her husband Lawrence (Mark Blum), we learn, were once like parents to Daniel. The last time anyone saw Daniel was when something bad happened a dozen years ago. Throughout, Kazan pushes a theme of intelligent dysfunction breeding intelligent dysfunction; a Royal Tenenbaums, Running with Scissors kind of brilliant but less-than-sane clan of wealthy East Coasters who are still reeling from a tragedy.

As the pressure builds, bride-to-be Althea’s mental clarity falters. One minute she passionately kisses her fiancé Sandy (Jeremy Shamos) and busily ignores Dinah like a normal sister, the next she tears up thank you notes, disgusted with her notepaper choice. She bellows that her sister’s bridesmaid dress is too big and to take it off and crawls on the floor like a cat. Jessica Collins handles the character’s flip-flopping personality well—I hated Althea, though we never learn why her goofy, cuddly fiancé doesn’t hate her, too.

Still, Jeremy Shamos is likable as Sandy. Amy Irving is perfectly annoying as Maggie; and Lawrence Bloom pulls off the easygoing dad and kowtowing husband with charm. Oscar Isaac plays Daniel skillfully—completely natural in the role. Compared to the other female characters, Betty Gilpin’s performance falls a little flat. But Gilpin doesn’t do a bad job considering how much of the plot tension Kazan rests on her shoulders.

Kazan’s script strives to be colloquial, dynamic, and funny. But it feels too funny, too overstated. There is a lot of “come to dinner!” kind of hollering that merely stands in for the familial normalcy that never really happens outside of television. The monologues often state too plainly what we should be left to ponder at a cafe over Earl Grey with lemon wedges after the show—like why this family tragedy seems linked to a Greek tragedy that dad, Lawrence, is writing about. The play wraps up with a big reveal and some bonding; and I left relieved that the yelling was over.

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Genevieve Walker is an editorial intern at Guernica and a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at N.Y.U. You can follow her on Twitter @pickled.

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