Surprise! Not so picture perfect after all. Clockwise from bottom left: neurotic sis (Dawn Box), dreamer dad (Louis Parent), adopted son (Earl Alexander), closeted son (Scott Holland), repressed mom (Anne Wallace).
Open Circle Theatre, 429 Boren N., 985-1019, $10-$12 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. ends Sat., June 15
UNLESS YOU'RE entertaining a yawning high-school crowd with Our Town, you don't get to cast a young guy as a middle-aged man. What you're asking for there is a game of "let's pretend" and not real theater. Everyone is pretty much the wrong age in this staging of The Whole Famndamily, from a youthful Louis Parent in the role of Joe Davidson, father of three teenagers, to mom Jean (too-young Anne Wallace) right on down to the Davidson brood, troubled high-schoolers played by a trio of adults who never quite seem callow enough. The GREX company makes other mistakes of playacting in this production, which strikes a wrongheaded pose despite some potential.
Patrick (The True History of Coca-Cola in Mexico) Scott's new script, making its world premiere, isn't going to send anyone out raving in wild surprise, anyway. The squeaky clean Davidson clan is—well, here's something original—not so picture perfect after all: Dad Joe is living in a nostalgic dream world; housewife Jean is hiding dissatisfaction behind a frozen smile; overachiever Kirsten (Dawn Box) is heading toward anorexia; "sporty" son Chuck (Scott Holland) is secretly a gay performance artist; and no one's bothered to notice that the adopted Davis (Earl Alexander) is black. You've seen this poking at the fraudulent ideal of the American family before, and playwrights like Nicky Silver (Pterodactyls, Free Will and Wanton Lust) have been doing it better.
Even with the dated jabs at suburbia, though, Scott's play shows a comic fervor that you don't get to experience here. You know that the facades—i.e., Jean's desperate excitement over the idea of having a "sensitive" son with whom to discuss her failing sex life—are ludicrous, but the colossal exaggeration is meant to throw a spotlight on the howling, distracted loneliness that has demanded their creation in the first place. Director James Newman doesn't know how to get both extremes at once; everyone just sounds insincere. "Who are we pretending we are?" Chuck asks at dinner one night. "Who are we pretending our family is?" The main failing of GREX's production is that you don't know who this family is—you only know that they're pretending. You have to strain your ear to catch the bite beneath the wan take on Scott's deceptively one-dimensional dialogue ("I'm gay in so many ways, and they're all beautiful!" declares Chuck).
It's a shame, because, miscast or no, much of Newman's troupe seems ready for a challenge. Parent is treading water as Joe, whose confused grief should be the show's centerpiece, but the cherubic Wallace, as his flailing wife, suggests tender glimpses of humanity and hasn't been told what to do with them. The same goes for Heather Newman, playing about a dozen different people in the lives of the Davidsons. Her efforts have some kick, and she's still got that marvelous, bassoon- like vocal instrument (heard to better effect in local Money & Run playwright Wayne Rawley's work), yet director Newman hasn't pushed her enough. Alexander is simply earnest as Davis, though Holland's dewy-eyed Chuck and, especially, Box's performance as the despairing daughter have, again, more to offer than this staging is allowing.