There sure are a lot of plays about wealthy Manhattanites. I guess that makes sense, because New York is a large theater market, a lot of playwrights choose to live there, and wealthy Manhattanites are a significant target market. But a lot of these plays wind up playing, and even premiering, in San Francisco, to the point where it feels like there are more plays on our stages about the lives and concerns of the New York rich than anything that might speak to ordinary San Franciscans. It’s the cultural imperialism of the Empire State, and local theaters seem to be only too happy to bow down before it.
Another Way Home, Anna Ziegler’s world premiere at Magic Theatre, feels very much like a New York play that just happens to be debuting in San Francisco. It’s actually set at a summer camp in Maine, but the characters are upscale New Yorkers who feel as if they’re slumming whenever they leave the island. None of which, incidentally, has much to do with the story itself. It’s just something that makes the characters very easy not to relate to, because they’re those people. You know the type.
It’s actually a play about a teenager with severe emotional difficulties, who’s depressed and angry all the time and lashes out at everyone, and about his high-strung, self-satisfied parents who come to visit him at summer camp. Joey actually seems to have been doing more or less okay at camp until they came calling—okay by his standards, anyway—but as soon as they arrive he’s mortified by everything they say and starts to panic at any communication between them and his friend at camp.
At first it seems like Joey really has something to hide, that there’s something between him and this kid Mike T. that he doesn’t want his parents to know about, but if so that never emerges. What the hell is Joey’s problem seems to be the most pressing question when the play begins, but there’s not really any answer to that. He’s just like that. What emerges instead is the fraying relationship between the parents themselves, and also a few tidbits about Mike just to account for how weirdly cagey he is.
Meredith McDonough, who recently left her post as director of new works at TheatreWorks to become associate artistic director at Actors Theatre of Louisville, gives the play a smart, sharp staging. Annie Smart’s is intriguing, a wooden platform in large squares, with a few translucent panels illuminated from below.
The parents narrate the story like old couples do, comfortably interrupting each other and squabbling over details. Mark Pinter’s Philip fancies himself a cool dad, with cringeworthy attempts at hip-hop slang, but when the chips are down he’s the overbearing patriarch, all too willing to point out who’s paying for everything. Philip’s got a high-playing job, seemingly as some kind of lawyer, that supports them comfortably but keeps him far too busy, and he’s haunted by the feeling that he’s wasted too many years working all the time and feels disconnected from his family. Pinter gives a good sense both of Philip’s hard, bristly edges and the doubts that haunt him.
The mother, Lillian, is doting in a smothering, overanxious way, trying way too hard and writing long letters to Joey every day, which he wishes she wouldn’t. But there’s also something sparkling about her, as if accustomed to shining in society. That’s especially true in the animated performance of Kim Martin-Cotten, whose slight resemblance to Catherine O’Hara drives home that Lillian is exactly the kind of character the latter would play. It’s interesting that the play makes a point of the family being Jewish, though, because the parents seem super waspy.
Daniel Petzold’s Joey is jittery and standoffish, squirmingly embarrassed by anything anybody says. He’s skittish to the point of panic, looking around like a scared animal when his parents are trying to be friendly, as if his fight or flight reflex is working overtime. Joey’s actually a camp counselor in training, which is a ridiculous prospect, but fortunately the unlucky camp kids assigned to him are unseen and thus purely hypothetical. Besides his spaced-out expression and teenage interrogative lilt, Jeremy Kahn has a solemn, quiet air as Mike, as if there’s much that he’s not saying.
Riley Krull has a charming turn as Nora, the white sheep of the family. A straight-A student who’s obsessed with Taylor Swift, she feels neglected because no one has to worry about her. And rightfully so—although she’s a pleasant ray of sunshine, her role in the play is minimal, essentially as support staff for her mother and brother to bounce their neuroses off of.
When Joey runs off into the woods and worry sets the parents at each other’s throats, I wouldn’t say the viewer really shares their concern. (We don’t really know the kid, much less like him, and the parents are no prize either.) But the occasion is a catalyst for some poignant and heartfelt reflections. Ziegler has a real flair for dialogue, and some of the speeches are honestly touching passages, especially one story about how anxious Joey was growing up, with such a litany of worries that he had to be reassured about before going to sleep that he eventually had to abbreviate it to “Do you promise all my questions?”
It’s the very impossibility of living up to that kind of promise that makes the play eventually resonate even if you’re not an affluent Manhattanite. Ultimately a family’s not about being perfect or being happy or even being nice—it’s about just being there. And sometimes, somehow, that’s a start.
Show #111 of 2012, attended November 13.