We Live Here, by Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of Elia,) and directed by Sam Gold is in previews at The Manhattan Theatre Club. Set in a beautifully designed (John Lee Beatty) New England home on the eve of a wedding celebration, family secrets and raw anguish are revealed.
The play opens with the mother (an almost unrecognizable Amy Irving) opening her daughter Ali’s wedding gifts. To save her the trouble. A brittle, insecure, youngest daughter Dinah (Betty Gilpin, daughter of Jack Gilpin) arrives to almost zero acknowledgment by her mother. Supposedly, mommy is simply overwhelmed by the details of the small family wedding. The bride Ali (Jessica Collins) arrives with her fiance Sandy (Jeremy Shamos) whom the parents suspect is gay. He enters carrying lilacs. There is a marked tension and dislike between the sisters, who are 11 years apart. Daddy (Mark Blum) beloved peacemaker and Greek philosopher, rounds out the family.
While still in the throws of awkward family reunion and meeting the fiance, young Dinah’s older boyfriend Daniel (Oscar Isaac) arrives. He is not exactly every parent’s ideal. Daniel is faculty at Julliard, where Dinah studies piano. He is also the ex-boyfriend of Ali’s deceased twin sister. Small town, that New York City, eh? This stretch of realism in the plot is barely noticeable however. There are much more gaping distractions on hand.
The first act is definitely the stronger of the two, but the script could use (more?) time in workshop. While there are exquisitely crafted moments (due in large part to the brilliance of Mr. Gold) and very believable dynamics, there are equal amounts of misses. There are very lofty writing aspirations at play (pun intended.) Bobbing and weaving around the mythology of Adromeda, is not interesting. It should either of been fleshed out or dropped as a theme. (My vote is for “dropped” as it’s an odd device in a play about identical twins.) The backdrop of the wedding, while utilitarian, is flawed in its execution. This is a family of New England intellectuals preparing for a small wedding. They would not be engaged in (last minute) handwritten, place cards, (last minute) dress fittings, (last minute) slide shows. Slide shows? The fiance is a Guggenheim winning portrait artist. Slide shows also don’t particularly jive with the mother (last minute) selecting which flowers (from their own garden) they will use for the wedding. All of these silly incongruities would not be so distracting if it weren’t for the fact that they are a warning. The number one rule for any writer (particularly one in their 20s) is “go with what you know.” Throughout the play, we have the distinct feeling that the playwright is only in passing acquaintance with her characters.
Dinah’s anorexia is considered “cured” yet, her bridesmaid dress (purchased very recently) no longer fits. She also does not eat. Yet, she talks about her “recovery” in a very (unintentionally) fictionalized manner. It’s very hard to believe much about her, when her most defining characteristic is unconvincing. Is she or isn’t she? It’s not that she doesn’t know, it’s that the playwright never decided. We believe she would want to be invisible and therefore develop anorexia, but the psychosocial accuracy is missing.
We discover that Althea’s twin sister Adromeda killed herself (it was implied earlier) after Ali slept with Daniel (back in high school.) The means not entirely justifying the ends for you? Well, it seems that Andromeda had stopped taking her Lithium and had been locked in the piano room for days, and her parents chose this exact time to leave all the girls alone for the weekend. Still not convinced? Well, it seems the family KNEW she had stopped taking her Lithium, but were pleased she was writing music again, particularly in time for the college application process. Okay, maybe they are crazy enough to have a slide show at a small family wedding.
To think that I had thought it irresponsible to send a daughter off to Julliard in the throws of an eating disorder.
A flashback is used to tell us Daniel and Ali slept together. It wasn’t needed, but it did add a wonderful haunting element; having the relentless piano playing of Andi (behind closed doors.) The flashback device is used as the transition for a tipsy Ali and Daniel getting on his motorcycle together. The inevitable accident occurs. Ali is only banged up, but (very briefly) noted is that the cellist Daniel, has seriously damaged his hand. The moments after Ali is brought home from the hospital are almost unbearably sad. The writing and acting of the parents is simply excruciating. My heart just broke for them and their pain. Sobbing and sniffling, I thought “yes!, go with what you know!” Clearly Ms. Kazan, has a true gift, demonstrated by those real, raw moments on the stage. What she and the play need(ed) was some serious work-shopping, and a merciless editor. Why does the fiance travel (on the eve of his wedding!) with his easel and paints? Why are gifts being sent to the parents when the couple already lives together?
The ending to this play with real potential, was very disappointing. Sandy leaves Ali. Maybe. Why? Because she slept with her sister’s boyfriend in high school? Because she rode on a motorcycle with him? It’s not clear. Why is the last scene, the sisters snuggling together promising to be there for each other forever? We never find out why they had such a distant relationship. We never find out why the family treats Dinah’s musical gifts (Julliard!) as a whim. As we wait on the edge of our seats for these illuminations, the play actually ends with the line; “Look the sun is rising.” Sigh.